Collective Genius and Brains in Vats

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I’ve at times felt some discomfort of the idea of the “genius,” maybe chiefly because I discovered I am not one, much to my delusional childhood chagrin. But the more one knows about one’s brilliant heroes, who despite having powerful creative and intellectual gifts are also rife with human flaws, one begins to see that for “genius” to flower and actually become something meaningful, someone else needs to work alongside the genius. Last year Hélène Mialet wrote at Wired about Stephen Hawking (someone we regard as easily qualifying as a “genius”) and how in many ways Hawking is a “brain in a vat,” and what we think of as “Steven Hawking” is really a larger gestalt of brilliant people:

In another version of Hawking’s story, we notice that he is more “incorporated” than any other scientist, let alone human being. He is delegated across numerous other bodies: technicians, students, assistants, and of course, machines. Hawking’s “genius,” far from being the product of his mind alone, is in fact profoundly located, material, and collective in nature. … What I discovered was that to understand Hawking, you had to understand the people and the machines without whom he would be unable to act and think; you had to understand the ways in which these entities augmented and amplified Hawking’s competencies.

And I think this applies to a lot of people we think of as either geniuses or extremely important or powerful. There’s a reason we can refer to President Obama, the White House, or “the administration,” and mean the same thing each time. The language we use reflects the understanding that the words and deeds of “President Obama” are actually those of a vast array of human beings working extremely hard, all under the banner of “Obama.” Barack Hussein Obama the person may be the hub of that network, the brain in the vat, but he is only one part of it. The successes and failures we ascribe to him are really borne by that network.

Joshua Wolf Shenk in a piece at the New York Times narrows this idea of “group genius” to the pair.

[A]n impressive body of research in social psychology and the new field of social neuroscience…contends that individual agency often pales next to the imperatives of a collective. The elemental collective, of course, is the pair. Two people are the root of social experience — and of creative work. When the sociologist Michael Farrell looked at movements from French Impressionism to that of the American suffragists, he found that groups created a sense of community, purpose and audience, but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Monet and Renoir, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In my own study of pairs, I found the same thing — most strikingly with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

I found this both enlightening and alarming. As readers of my previous blog have been told severally, I am a pretty severe introvert, and the idea that “genius” really requires, or at least best thrives, with people in pairs worries me a bit. (The fewer the people in a group, the more the intimacy is increased, and the more threatening that can be to us introverts.) This is not to say I have never been or am incapable of being collaborative with another human being — I used to be a professional stage actor! — but especially these days it doesn’t come up much. I don’t even work in physical proximity to my coworkers, but alone in my home office.

Perhaps Lennon needed McCartney, Carl Sagan likely needed Ann Druyan, and presumably Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak and later Jony Ive (or Tim Cook?) — not as the person behind them, but as creative partners — and they were fortunate enough to find each other and decide to collaborate. But all these collaborations took place before the Internet dominated so much of our social lives. These people had to interact in meatspace. Even the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came together in person in a garage.

But what Google and others helped enable with the rise of the Internet and the Web was collaboration — deep, meaningful, substantive collaboration — between people who have never been in each other’s physical presence. That gives me hope.

Now, just because it’s been enabled, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily happening much. I genuinely don’t know, and we’re really only on the cusp of this being a viable way to work and create together, via our connected devices, never in the same room. As someone who works from home, I feel pretty confident that good work and collaboration is not only possible, but in many ways improved and augmented with remote interaction, and I can thrive and excel in a vat-brain support network. But is this how the next “White Album” or Cosmos or iPhone will come to be?

I’d bet that probably yes, eventually, when more areas of friction in communication are removed, and there’s no meaningful difference between popping into someone’s office with a sudden whim and doing its equivalent online.

Our Finite Lives During the Tech Revolution: Hello from iMortal

Anyone with a passing interest in technology will be familiar with the “cult of Apple” cliché, the idea that Apple’s core users are less customers or fans, and more devotees and fanatics.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this idea, casting myself as a fundamentalist disciple of “The Steve” (peace be upon him), asserting, with tongue partially in cheek, that Apple could do no wrong, that all of its design choices and marketing messages were divinely revealed through Steve himself, as well as certain chosen prophets like Jony Ive, he of the Perfect White Heaven of Industrial Design. For a time, I even donned the blue shirt and belonged officially to Apple’s priesthood.

But as much as I do admire and connect with Apple and its devices, I am kidding on the square with all of my quasi-religious proselytizing and rhetorical genuflecting.

Along these lines, last year Brett T. Robinson wrote about the mystical properties being ascribed to the iPhone, and how Apple had succeeded in selling a mix of the physical and the metaphysical:

The iPhone and its touchscreen interface engage the technological faithful at a heightened level of intimacy. The iPhone is not a cold and lifeless machine; it is an enchanted talisman, animated by touch. It mimics an encounter with the transcendent by mediating the infinite body of online information and communication possibilities.

I’m not certain if Robinson’s use of the word “talisman” in this context is the first I’d seen, but something about this idea, the iPhone-as-talisman, the tech gadget as religious artifact, really resonated with me. Instead of poking fun at the religious fervor of Apple fanboys, it suggested to me entirely new avenues of thought when it comes to the human relationship to our devices, the seemingly endless layers of technologies that surround us, support us, guide us, keep us, and in many ways define us.

Supernaturalistic religion is entirely false, baseless, dangerous, and on the decline. What moves in to fill some of the gaps it leaves behind? Ethics, science, humanistic compassion, and each individual’s own efforts toward making meaning within their lives, certainly. But I think that additionally technology, permeating our culture and superimposed over our day-to-day lives, is part of that. I think it’s a big part of that.

And I want to think out loud about that here.

iMortal will look at technology and the human experience, written from a skeptic and humanist perspective. Not every post will be about tech-as-religion per se, but the main focus of this blog will be this interplay of modern technology and the way we live our lives.

You like the banner? It was made by most excellent friend Justin Sapp, who often does these nice things for me.

The contents of my other blog Near-Earth Object will be migrated here over the coming weeks, so don’t let that particular hodgepodge of subject matter confuse you, but also don’t expect dogmatic adherence to a singular topic from here on out either. I reserve the right to continue to indulge in writing about my absurd adventures as a parent, non-philosophical gadget reviews, laments about politics, and other sundry things that catch my interest. (I will also continue to contribute to Friendly Atheist.) But the intent of this blog is to be more specifically focused than the previous one.

We are mortal beings riding an incredible wave of technological change the likes of which our species has never seen. At the same time, so many of us are still mired in Bronze Age myths and magical thinking. What’s it all mean? What are we in for? I certainly don’t know, but I’m dying to find out.

So this is iMortal, a blog about our finite lives during the tech revolution.