Madisonian: Michael Madison on Governance and More

Surfing the Blogocean

Some blogs I try to read every day; with others, weeks may go by before I go back and catch up on accumulated posts.  Sometimes the second strategy yields unexpected benefits, particularly when the blog is one that really seems to capture the mind of the writer at work.  Today I read through a couple of weeks’ worth of posts by my friend and colleague Susan Crawford, and found these two gems.  They’re unrelated on the surface but linked and revelatory when you read more closely.  More below the jump.

First:  Not too loud but memorable

I’d like to give a talk (also without notes) that persuaded everyone listening that they are part of a story that is just as creative and visual as Einstein’s mind.  Something profound is going on in the world of communication that can’t be finitely explained in advance.  Talking about email and VoIP and blogs is just skimming the surface.  We’re inside a phase change in communication that is hard to see – there are small avalanches of changes in the form of email and blogs, but the bigger change is more fundamental.  There’s a push into novelty, into the “adjacent possible,” that is speeding along, catalyzed by global digital communications.

But starting this way, with handwaving and appeals to profundity, won’t be memorable.  I’ll need to tell stories.  What stories put across the thought experiment of a global brain?  Why would anyone want to be told they’re a neuron?  (“No, not moron, neuron.”)  Maybe the global brain solves a universal problem, in a way that brings makes people see things differently.  Anecdotes, web pages, videos – but is that like looking down at an index card? 

The couch potato is dead, and we’re in the midst of a history of surprises. 

[Walter] Isaacson had it easy, in a way; he’s talking about a life [Einstein’s] that has ended, and he can look back and tell stories about how it went.  I’d like to convince people listening to my talk that we have absolutely no idea how things are going to go with the internet, and that that’s as it should be.  Mind-blowing diversity is actually good, because out of sufficiently dense diversity life emerges.  Whoof – hard to visualize.

And second:  Loopiness

Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop has my attention right now.  It’s an unexpected book that seems to be operating on several levels at once, just as minds do; it is at once simple/anecdotal and obscure.

There’s a division that Hofstadter sets up early on – those who enjoy and look for feedback (self-referential) loops, and those who flee from them, trying to set up worlds that don’t involve things that fold in on themselves.  Hofstadter from a young age was obsessed with feedback loops (and music). 

His aim in this book is to explore how souls, selves, and consciousness develop.  The physical parts of the brain don’t interest him – he’s interested in structural/architectural abstractions like these:

long-term memory and short-term memory

episodic memory and melodic memory

analogical bridges

memes

. . . sense of humor

“I”

All of this — both posts — resonates deeply with me.   I was one of those people influenced heavily and often by Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach.  I read it multiple times in college, and I went back for a second helping with The Mind’s I.  Whether or not you’re persuaded by Hofstadter, the man makes you think, long and hard, about patterns and complexity and the interconnectedness of things.  What’s more, Hofstadter has a knack for laying this out anecdotally and via dialogue and narrative, for telling the kind of story that Susan is looking for to persuade people that an amazing future lies ahead.  That’s why it was and is no surprise to read the progression of posts from “search for stories of the future” to “self-referential loops.”  It’s the same theme, told twice.

The post about stories begins with an anecdote about Walter Isaacson, who just published a new biography of Einstein.  Someone like Einstein, or Franklin before him, is a perfect starting point not only for contemporary historians of science but also for historians of the future.  Read biographies of Franklin (Isaacson or Morgan, recently), or histories of Einstein’s science (Galison, recently) and be struck by a wonder at the possibilities of the emerging world that compares favorably to contemporary optimism.  Franklin and Einstein are often cast as heroic individuals on a mythic scale; I’ve come to see them as profoundly aware of their social and cultural contexts — or networks, one might say in contemporary terms.  I can’t say that the current future is necessarily so bright, but as we all become more acutely aware of our networked conditions, the search for stories may loop (!) backward, not forward.