Saturday, February 04, 2006

Got book and paper recommendations?

I need to compile a reading list (for me) on the social implications of looking at life mechanistically or, um, emergently. Books, articles, and papers that have to do with recent scientific views of cognition, self-conception, and social conception would be good. So would books on historical intersections of art and science, though please no fractal-art, ASCII art, or other game-y art. If there are a few you particularly like, or writers you like, please recommend. Thanks.


ehj2 said...

I very much enjoyed the book "Engineering And The Mind's Eye" by Eugene Ferguson (MIT Press) ... so even if it isn't quite what you're looking for, I'm certain you'll want to look at it.

Unfortunately, I gave mine away a few years ago to a friend's son going off to ... engineering school at Cornell.

What Eugene writes about is how difficult it is to see the impacts of what we invent or discover. By way of example, the water powered mill gave rise to floors of two-dimensionally arrayed machines for performing work ... and over time these arrays were, through trial and error, organized very efficiently. With the introduction of the electric motor, the drive belts of these machines could be replaced with motors. But it was a decade or more before it was realized that the machines no longer were "glued" to one floor ... and could be arrayed in three dimensions for even more efficiency and utility.

He has a lot of examples coming at the problem from different directions, but demonstrating in whole (and very effectively) that we really have a difficult time conceptualing the changes and impacts we introduce with technology. And by inference strongly urging that we at least try to do better.

Perhaps no one "could" have imagined that the introduction of the automobile would mean ... shopping malls ... where everyone drives a large distance to arrive at all the stores in one place. Does that even make sense?

Found you through your very wise comments at BitchPhd.

Good luck with your journey.


Amy Charles said...

Thanks for the recommendation -- that sounds like just the kind of thing I'm interested in. It's also why it's so hard to write about a business you haven't been in yourself; there are always controlling factors and consequences you're unlikely to think of yourself, like when the UPS guy comes, or what happens when a boss insists on keeping inventory in his head.

A couple years ago, there was a NYT Sunday Magazine story (I think) about the inventor of malls. The social consequences of his creations horrify him, apparently.

The "who knows what will be from X" theme is a pretty common one in sci-fi, I think -- the Ray Bradbury story about the guy on time safari who steps on the prehistoric butterfly comes to mind. But I think that if a fiction could avoid staring at the changes, and focus on people's lives as they live with these changes which are already ordinary parts of their world, that could be more interesting. Heinlein did some of that, but it kind of got sidelined by the enormous breasts and body paint, I think.

Elizabeth said...

I'm still not entirely sure what you mean by "mechanistically or emergently" but the story that comes to mind is Think Like a Dinosaur, by Ted Chiang.

I don't want to give away the plot, because it's wonderful.

I think it may be the opposite of what you're looking for, because it's about human resistance to the idea that self and body could be separated, while you seem to mostly be struggling with human resistance to the idea that there is no self beyond body.

Am I even vaguely on the right track?

Amy Charles said...

It's hard to say without knowing the story, but it sounds thematically related. If there's a common, but not overwhelming, cultural sense that body and mind are inseparable, but there are still culturally powerful stories saying they are separable...well, you'll have problems. Which means stories.

I don't belive there is a strong sense that body and mind are inseparable, btw. That separability is the basis for movies like Freaky Friday and other switcheroos. It's also the AI bias (fantastically complex brain in a vat) that Rodney Brooks made himself a maverick against, arguing that what we perceive as mind or creaturehood arises from creatures' physical embodiment in and physical response to the world. That's one of Damasio's points, too. I think I've got those two scientists right; please correct if you know better, anyone.

ehj2 said...

you've got a great memory. i posted the mall article under "America/The Mall" last summer:

i read a lot of heinlein as a kid, as well as all of herman hesse. maybe it's just a phase a certain kind of kid has to go through.

consciousness "seems" to be emergent, kind of sitting "on top" of unconsciousness. work suggests that the mind is pervasive throughout the nervous system, and that the nervous system is connected to the fluid systems of the body via chemical "signing."

so if you're going to suck me out of my body, you've got to take a lot more than just my brain or nervous system. physical trainers even speak of "muscle memory," because muscles, like brain cells, are changed by use, and even if neglected for a long time (a memory not retrieved or a muscle not used) ... canalization has already rendered them more receptive to restimulation. so even memory seems to be stored throughout the body.


Anonymous said...

By Daniel C. Dennet, "Consciousness Explained" and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life".

abramoff said...

I want to comment a bit belatedly on Amy's comment 'if a fiction could avoid staring at the changes, and focus on people's lives as they live with these changes which are already ordinary parts of their world, that could be more interesting'.
Jack Vance's work is not popular beyond a small and very dedicated following. However, this following consists of a combination of writers / engineers / physicians. More importantly, he writes about how people's lives and their cultures have been affected by technology, assuming for example that the discovery of space travel is hundreds of years in the past, but hardly discussing the technology.