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Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist
by Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 2013, 415 pages.

To Save Everything, Click HereFor around $80,000 plus a modest annual fee, a company called Alcor can preserve your brain when you die by enrolling you in its ‘Life Extension Program’. This involves putting the recently deceased’s brain through an ice-free preservation, or vitrification, storing it at a very low temperature ‘until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health.’

Cryonics—the prospect of immortality through freezing people’s bodies soon after the moment of death in the hope of reviving them later when science has caught up—has been part of the popular imagination since the 1960s. Alcor has been in operation since the 1970s and has over 100 patients currently ‘preserved’. While it was once the fashion to freeze the whole body, in the last decade it has become more common to remove the head and simply preserve the brain. This is reportedly cheaper, easier to transport and less prone to damage (In an enlightening episode of This American Life called ‘Mistakes Were Made’, we hear how an enterprising TV repairman started his own cryonics business in the 60s and later had to explain to families of the frozen about the consequences of a damaging leak). Steve Bridge, a former Alcor president, describes the experience of conducting tours of the cryonics storage facility. After showing visitors the full-body containers, he would point to a smaller one and explain that some people had chosen to have only their heads frozen:

The most common reaction is a stunned pause with eyes growing to the size of saucers. For them, the entire building has just melted into surreality, like Salvador Dali’s clocks, sculpted in ice. A few people laugh in surprise or nervousness. A small number look queasy or disgusted. And occasionally, if I have done my job well and set up the visitor with descriptions of the repairs that will be possible in the future, the visitor will say, “Oh, that makes sense. You can just grow a new body for the brain.

Bridge must have done his job well more than once, as not only has neuropreservation become the more popular choice, but several of Alcor’s existing patients have since been ‘converted to neuro’.

The quest to conquer death is much older than cryonics of course. What’s interesting is why so many modern adventurers use the vocabulary of science. John Gray has explored this intriguing question in The Immortalization Commission, in which he claims this strange mix of science and the supernatural, of materialism and magical thinking, is really about a refusal to accept the materialist implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s science, he says, “had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species.”

Gray’s book chronicles the delusional nature of two such refusals. One is the eponymous Russian Immortalization Commission, an organisation of ‘God-builders’ tasked with preserving Lenin’s remains for future deification—“a true revolutionary must aim to deify humanity, an enterprise that includes the abolition of death.” The other is a Victorian England group called the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation whose membership ranks boasted physicists, philosophers, poets, physiologists, politicians and prime ministers. The Society used ‘unbiased and scientific’ methods to investigate the paranormal, including telepathy and automatic writing—that is, messages received from the dead through a medium. Most of all, they wanted to find a way for human beings to survive death.

Charles Darwin himself once attended a séance with George Eliot and Francis Galton (some of their peers and acquaintances would later become involved with the SPR.) Reportedly Darwin “found the experience ‘hot and tiring’ and left before anything unusual happened.” But evidently not everyone found it so important to keep a cool head. Darwin’s message of final oblivion and eventual extinction was not one that sat well with the optimism of the age, steeped in Enlightenment values of progress, scientific rationality, and liberation from an age of faith and superstition. As Gray suggests, “For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.”

Is cryonics too best understood this way? Certainly the more recent ‘neuropreservation’ turn in cryonics smacks of disgust at the mortal and decaying nature of the human body. What could be purer than a brain? Indeed, it is curious that the present enthusiasm for neuroscience, with its incautious assumption that we are our brains, should develop around the same time that we are getting the best evidence that Descartes may have had it wrong all along, that mind and body are not separate and that reason, emotion, thinking and feeling are all part of a complex process that involves our whole bodies.

Is the quest to find the essential truth of our humanity in our neurons a turn to science to escape the world that science is revealing? Psychologist Paolo Legrenzi and others have begun to critique our growing ‘neuromania’ and its technological claims, particularly the use of fMRI scans that show the brain ‘lighting up’ under different conditions—“you could be forgiven for thinking of the brain as being managed by a crooked estate agent letting out the same bit of real estate simultaneously to different clients.” Recently, a pair of researchers performed fMRI on a dead Atlantic salmon. While showing the salmon pictures of humans in different social interactions, they were surprised to find it showed ‘neural activity’ when asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.

One wonders what Darwin would have made of fMRIs. But what is it about the world that his science reveals that is so intolerable to so many? Perhaps it’s not just oblivion and extinction that are unacceptable, but the sheer chaos of this. Evolution, we should remember, is drift—it has no purpose or direction. But chaos is the enemy of progress, especially the kind of incremental, orderly progress to a better future for humanity that characterised the Victorian era but that is also the credo of much present-day middle-class liberal progressivism. Gray says such people “look for a way out of chaos; but they are part of that chaos; natural or divine.”

If one pays close attention, one of the striking characteristics of the kinds of utopian worlds described and promised by those who flee from chaos is often how spectacularly boring they are. Utopias are often stuffy, lifeless places devoid of detail and colour. They lack the kind of particularities that make real life so interesting. One might think that given the limitless possibilities on offer, this sort of poor imagination is really letting the side down a bit. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by this if it is after all a kind of avoidance of life and its chaotic particularities that drives a certain sort of person to imagine perfectly ordered worlds in the first place.

Perhaps it is an unwillingness to be part of life’s chaos that produces the kind of progressivist techno-babble that has become so much a part of today’s public imagination. When it is possible to write books with titles like What Technology Wants and have them sell in large quantities, one begins to suspect there is some seriously magical thinking going on. In this climate, ‘technology’, and especially ‘the Internet’, has become something with a life of its own, a force outside time, society and politics that offers new and better futures if only we are prepared to listen closely to what it has to say. That an idea like technology having the capacity to ‘want’ anything is a bit bonkers hasn’t stopped large numbers of very clever people taking it quite seriously, but when has it ever? Indeed, the breathtaking magnitude of its silliness is undoubtedly a large part of its novelty.

Evgeny Morozov sounds like a man who went to a séance once and found it hot and tiring. In his book To Save Everything, Click Here he describes this sort of techno-babble as: Continue Reading →

Review: The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest
The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest by Yochai Benkler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yochai Benkler’s brief and approachable book takes issue with the founding premises of many of our institutions that humans are in general not to be trusted and that we need strong authority and incentives to keep us in line lest we run amok. He seeks to show us that our basic nature, though far from perfect, is far more cooperative and altruistic than is commonly thought.

Benkler makes his case using a range of detailed examples, many of which will be familiar to readers of other work of this nature. In fact, The Penguin and the Leviathan can be regarded as something of a synthesis of Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ and Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s ‘Practical Wisdom.’ In my opinion these are all better books in their own right, but the value of Benkler’s offering is that it puts together many of their disparate insights in a sustained and focused way. That this book is coming from a business/economics/technology background in itself makes this a worthwhile and encouraging contribution.

Benkler seems alive too to the darker side of cooperative behaviour, though this is not sufficiently developed in my view. Overall though, The Penguin and the Leviathan provides a measured, accessible and persuasive take on the age-old problem of how to design organisational systems that bring out the best in humanity. It’s a great, up-to-date starting place for anyone with an interest in this question.

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The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

Continue Reading →

A Tall Story

The Tall Man
Directed by Tony Krawitz
Documentary, 2011, 78 minutes.

The Tall ManOn the morning of November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, an indigineous resident of Palm Island in tropical Queensland, was arrested for swearing at Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and taken to the local police station. 45 minutes later, he was found dead in his cell. Later, he was found to have had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver and spleen. The police claimed he had tripped on a step. It is perhaps the most high profile case of an Aboriginal death in custody on record, and certainly one of the most complicated.

Doomadgee and Hurley were the same age — 36 at the time of the incident. In some ways what happened reads as a story of two men from very different walks of life who cross paths and cannot help but bring their different social circumstances and history to bear upon the situation. Those histories, and the timeline of events following Doomadgee’s death, are the subject of Tony Krawitz’s documentary The Tall Man. The film aired on SBS in 2011 and is based on the book of the same name by Chloe Hooper.

The film puts the audience in the position of a jury as it follows the events following Doomadgee’s death and by the end we form a fairly clear impression of what happened, given the available evidence. But The Tall Man is equally concerned with how those affected have made sense of what happened and what the sequence of tragic events tells us about race relations in Australia. This is where the film is most powerful. Continue Reading →

Heart of Darkness

Rebelle (War Witch)
Directed by Kim Nguyen
Starring Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien
2012, 90 minutes.

War WitchKomona is 12 years old and lives in a small village in war-torn Africa. One day she is out gathering food when she sees a gang of rebels closing in. She runs back to warn the village but the rebels are soon upon them, killing the adults indiscriminately — they are recruiting child soldiers. In the aftermath, Komona stands facing her parents, shadowed by the towering presence of the rebel captain. She is handed a gun and told to shoot her parents. If she does not, the rebel captain will kill them instead. With a machete. Komona meets her parents eyes for a long moment, and then it is time to choose. Do it, her father says. She does. The rebel captain congratulates her — “Now you are one of Great Tiger’s rebels.”

Did Komona do the right thing? It seems odd to describe killing your parents execution-style as doing the right thing, yet most of us would similarly hesitate to say what Komona did was wrong. It seems like an impossible situation, but impossible situations happen more often than you’d think. Most of us will be fortunate enough never to find ourselves confronted with Komona’s choice, but all of us can recall the experience of being faced with a decision where there are no good options. In moral philosophy, this is known as a tragic choice.

From an intellectual perspective, tragic choices are untidy. It would be nice if we could come up with some all-purpose general formula that allowed us to decide the right thing to do in any given situation. Indeed, much effort has been expended by countless clever people on just this kind of project, the assumption underlying their theories being that if we follow the process faithfully, the good thing will happen. When reality intrudes on these kinds of fanciful musings however, we may find such formulas are not really up to the job of facing life’s complexities. Continue Reading →

Christmas Everyday

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

You may not know it, but Kenny Rogers’ Christmas album is an astounding piece of performance art. Simply titled ‘Christmas’, it displays a self-confidence that reflects Rogers’ honest-to-goodness heartland values, an ebullience that nonetheless masks moments of great insight and vulnerability.

Rogers’ first Christmas album (for yes, we are blessed with four others and a best-of collection) is a product of 1981, a time in which a newly-elected Ronald Reagan offered hope to a nation battered by oil shocks, the Iranian hostage crisis and economic stagflation. A time when AIDS was on the horizon, Pope John Paul II had an attempt made on his life, and Greece entered the Economic Community. Some might say that a Christmas album by a three-time Grammy-winning country artist is hardly a medium in which to detect the beat of history, but could there be more here than meets the ear?

For instance, a soberly-rendered version of ‘My Favourite Things’ is immediately followed by a soaring rendition of ‘O Holy Night’ – a juxtaposition that seems to point to a concern with the tension between the material and the messianic, the everyday and the eternal. Or perhaps it is a paean to lost innocence, expressing the sentiment that ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’, once such a treasured possession, may now be of uncertain providence and indeed hint at the possibility of terrorism.

Rogers’ layering of meaning is masterfully understated. On first listen, ‘Christmas Is My Favourite Time of Year’ may appear to express a straightforward sentiment. But on each hearing, the opening line teases more possibilities – ‘How wise the wisemen must have been to find the child in Bethlehem’. Is there a suggestion here that the ‘wise’ men were in fact not so, that they had help? Or does he mean that they are wise because they recognized the guidance they received for what it was? Is the artist in fact offering us lessons here for the role of government in an individualistic society, a theme that would come to characterize the Reagan years? Rogers, coyly, doesn’t say. But the track is followed by ‘White Christmas’, which seems an odd inclusion given Rogers’ Texan heritage and in contrast to the rest of the album’s Americana (eg Kentucky Homemade Christmas). Perhaps Rogers is instead hinting here at Europe’s anxiety over Greece’s controversial entry to the community, the dreams of a ‘white’ Christmas an allusion to fears that they will no longer be ‘like the ones we used to know’.

At just 33 and a half minutes, Kenny Rogers’ ‘Christmas’ offers far too little chance to ponder such conundrums. How fortunate then that I have been blessed with the opportunity to listen to this album of such rich and extraordinary diversity over, and over, and over again, on loop, for the past week and a half. Rogers has been my constant companion in the office thanks to my colleague who, despite all the possibilities offered by recorded music, felt that this CD, and only this CD, was the right choice with which to fill the air. It was, I feel, the right decision. Rogers’ country drawl, heartland humility and Christian sentiment has provided both musical and spiritual accompaniment to my working hours. Each time the opening track rolls round I smile and, twitching only a little, think ahhh yes, truly it is ‘Christmas Everyday’. ◾

Judge it on its merits

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
by Christopher Hayes
Crown, 314 pages.

Twilight of the ElitesOur understanding of the world has some catching up to do. The big political themes, ideas and experiments of the 20th century — socialism, the welfare state, nationalism, communism, free marketeering, deregulation, big government, small government, civil rights, human rights, globalisation and free trade — these are all ways of making sense of a world that is quite different to the one we live in today.

Clearly we need new ideas, but first we need to understand why the old ones no longer work.

Two signature characteristics of our times are the emptying of public discourse of questions of the good, and the pervasive lack of faith in basic social institutions. The two are obviously related, but we are still awaiting a scholar who can tell that story persuasively.

Chris Hayes’ book Twilight of the Elites focusses on the latter problem — what he calls the ‘crisis of authority’ in which trust in the ‘pillar’ institutions of society has eroded to dangerous historical lows. Hayes is writing about America, but much is transferrable to the other advanced Western democracies. Continue Reading →