I was really impressed by Benford's book Deep Time, but this subsequent volume on robots and cyborgs did not do much for me.
I expected a robust discI was really impressed by Benford's book Deep Time, but this subsequent volume on robots and cyborgs did not do much for me.
I expected a robust discussion of not only the current trends in robotics and cybernetics but also their implications for society and the human species; instead I got the usual techno-utopian cheerleading that relies on weak, if not actually false, analogies (e.g., "We've always been tool users, so therefore being cyborgs with implanted/integrated "tools" won't really be anything novel," or "We've always been tinkering with genes through breeding, and so implanting new genes directly into crop species isn't really anything new") and which ignores the history of technoscience's broken utopian promises (flying cars, anyone?) and unintended consequences.
I was also fairly appalled at the implied dismissal of a humanist approach to these technologies, one that adds a nuanced historical perspective (see above re: broken promises and unintended consequences), political economic context, and ethical criticisms of robots, cyborgs, and the possible future of the human species. Bioethicists, the authors argue, find problems whereas engineers find innovative solutions; the point apparently being that humanists are not really necessary, other than as bothersome nags who cannot simply shut up and accept the onward march of technoscientific progress. (That humanists often point out future problems which may be solved by altering present trajectories is ignored, as is the inconvenient fact that technical solutions usually come with a host of new, attendant problems. In the words of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." That whole figuring out if we should or not is the purview of the humanists, if not the human population as a whole.)
Lest readers of this review think Thom a mindless Luddite and pissed off old man who just don't like the newfangled gewgaws and wants the damn kids to stop playing in my yard, they are only partially correct. I've been a fan of science and of science fiction for my entire life, but I've also grown up in a world where science promised more than it was able to deliver, time and again. I often comment (only half-jokingly) to wife, kid, and friends that I would gladly be uploaded into a machine or cyborg, so that I could escape the aches and pains of my weary flesh; luckily one of those friends, who happens to be a humanist medical doctor and chair of medical humanities at a Midwestern medical school, reminded me of context: whomever would pay to have me uploaded probably has an agenda in mind that is entirely different from my cyber-goal of providing for my eternal comfort with an infinite library at my disposal. This book needs a stronger dose of that sort of cold water to temper the authors' enthusiasm....more
I was 100 pages into this exploration of the dark side of the Midwestern small town when I got frustrated and almost put the book down. I jus
I was 100 pages into this exploration of the dark side of the Midwestern small town when I got frustrated and almost put the book down. I just wanted the author to reveal who the Mad Gasser was and tell his side of the story, rather than make vague suggestions as to his identity while exploring in detail the personal and wartime tensions running through Mattoon. By the end of the novel, I realized that this is precisely what those detailed explorations had done; they revealed exactly who the Mad Gasser was and put a lot of flesh on the dry bones of the phrase "mass hysteria." (In other words scared, ignorant folks en masse believe and do crazy, stupid shit in a panic, which panic is usually self-induced.) As a more-or-less lifelong central Illinoisan myself I found Brown's depictions of those dark undercurrents running often just beneath the nice, "Christian" veneer of small town Illinois life very, very accurate. This book hit me harder than I thought it would (not saying much, admittedly; that it hit me at all is more than I thought it would) and made what had always simply been a fun, spooky story a little more personal and a little more relevant.
You're lookin' in the mirror, small town Illinois....more