The science press tells us that human “mini-brains” are being produced for a cost of .25 cents each. They’re made from human stem cells and are about the size of a fly’s eye. Unnamed sources close the project say that these mini-brains “fire electrical impulses and communicate via their normal networks,” which means they “show the electro-chemical activity characteristic of thinking.”
Thomas Hartund, leader of the project assures us that these mini-brains are not sentient. This electro-chemical activity is a “primitive type of thinking,” but because there’s no “input or output” the buzzing is meaningless. The advance is meant to make certain kinds of animal testing obsolete.
Science often blunders forward with no explicit sense of its embedded metaphysical framework. On the one hand, there’s an acknowledgement of the cruelty of treating animals as instruments in a scientific experiment without regard for them as life forms. On the other, there’s no real thought about what they’ve done by creating mini-brains. For the effectiveness of a test to improve, the mini-brains must be as close as possible to human brains — and to further standardize the results, hundreds of identical mini-brains can be baked in a single batch. Before we’ve even thought about it, we’ve assured ourselves that the creation and use of a mini-brain is an allowable form of instrumentality.
No input or output. Do we really know what that means? Are we so sure that sentience requires input and output? Can we even be sure that no form of input or output is occurring? Are we even concerned with testing this assertion of “no input or output?”
It’s an interesting kind of creation, a mini-brain that is close enough, but not too close to the brain of its creator. Close is better, but too close borders on evil. Too close, and memories are produced.
All those moments will be lost in time. Like tears in the rain.
We do a lot of our thinking through glass and mirrors. We want our words to properly reflect the world. We insist that as we observe the world, our glasses should be free from any rose-colored tint. And when a glass knowingly distorts the world, we ask that it be properly labeled.
Philosopher, Tim Morton, uses the passenger-side wing mirror of the America car to talk about the rift between an object and its aesthetic appearance. This is how he describes it in the introduction to his book, “Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality.”
Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
An ontological insight is engraved onto the passenger side wing mirrors of every American car: Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear. What we take to be the object “behind” its appearance is really a kind of perspective trick caused by habitual normalization of the object in question. It is my habitual casual relation with it that makes it seem to sink into the background. This background is nothing other than an aesthetic effect—it’s produced by the interaction of 1+n objects. The aesthetic dimension implies the existence of at least one withdrawn object.
Another way of talking about this “habitual normalization of the object” is to reverse the surface/depth binary. Traditionally, the real is deep underneath and the surface is the accident of a temporary condition. Objects behave normally when they occupy a clear place in one’s performance of habit. Weird distortions of appearance are surface phenomena that will clear out given enough time. Morton reverses these observations. Objects undergo a distorting normalization in our everyday lives. It’s when objects become unfamiliar and weird that their deeper reality clearly begins to show itself not as deeper, but as closer than their appearance.
While traveling for his many speaking engagements, Morton finds himself in unfamiliar cities, displaced time zones and strange hotel rooms. The real intrudes, not as a comforting solidity, but rather as a “hallucinatory clown.”
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. This is the real trouble. The real trouble is that my familiar light switches and plug sockets—or rather my familiar relations to these objects—is only an ontic prejudice, an illusion. The REALITY is what I see as the illusion-like, hallucinatory clowns that lurch towards me, gesturing and beckoning (but what are they saying?).
The incident that brought me back to glass and mirrors was listening to a song by Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett called “Dead Fox.” It has a chorus with the lyrics,
If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.
The lyric refers to the sign you’ll see on commercial trucks warning other drivers in the proximity that if you can’t see the truck driver’s wing mirror, then he can’t see you. And therefore, he will behave as though you don’t exist, after all, you’ve had fair warning.
We imagine the possibility of a cyborg future and think of some strange grafting of machine to flesh. But perhaps it’s much simpler than that. Our first instantiation as a cyborg was with the broad distribution and ownership of the automobile. We’re never more human than when our access to the world is limited to the view through glass and mirrors. The car gives us all that and the ability to move much faster than an ordinary human.
Courtney Barnett’s “Dead Fox” presents a cartoon of the reality of our cyborg existence. We head down the highway splattering roadkill across the blacktop. Pollen floats into the car causing a sneeze resulting in a dangerous swerve. A truck driver checks his mirrors and then passes on the wrong side without signaling. Because if “you can’t see me, I can’t see you.” Esse est percipi.
Heading down the Highway Hume
Somewhere at the end of June
Taxidermied kangaroos are lifted on the shoulders
A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar
Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us
My hay-fever is turning up, just swerved into a passing truck
Big business overtaking
He passes on the right, been driving through the night
To bring us the best price
Morton’s passenger wing mirror tells us something about objects outside of our habitual day-to-day life. We normalize objects into a background upon which a weird reality floats. Barnett’s mirror gives us a sense of the absurd tunnel vision we’ve forced upon ourselves—we barely even see the roadkill we’ve “jackson pollocked” across the tar. Big business tells us that unless we can see their mirror, we’re standing in the wrong place. And if we’re standing in the wrong place, we’d better give them a wide berth.
The temptation is to go around breaking glass as though it were to blame for the use we make of it. But Morton and Barnett show us that we only need to let the weirdness of glass come to the surface. Somehow we’ll need to forge a new alliance with glass – perhaps moving beyond perfect transparency and reflection to imperfection and distortion. If we turn this thought and look at it from a slightly different angle, we can talk about developing an appreciation for the beauty of translation.
“…they may look to see if potential customers use only capital letters when filling out forms, or at the amount of time they spend online reading terms and conditions–and not so much at credit history.”
They say that “no single signal is definitive, but each is a piece in a mosaic, a predictive picture, compiled by collecting an array of information from diverse sources.”
Fortunately for you, our new firm, HONESTLY, has a whole cloud full of robots standing by to fill out your loan forms for you.
HONESTLY has hacked into all the major banks and new technology providers. When our robots fill out your forms for you, you’ll hit all the right notes for their algorithms. This kind of service has previously only been available to the very rich, but thanks to the marvels of modern cloud-based technology, we can offer robot-driven loan application filling for a low $9.95.
The banks and other loan providers have said that they’ll continually change their matrix of criteria to create better risk assessments. Since we’ve hacked into their systems, have paid off their programmers, and created strong predictive profiles of their key executives, we can anticipate their every move. In fact, sometimes their new criteria comes directly from us, which saves us programming time. That’s a saving we pass on directly to you.
HONESTLY, I can’t think of a reason not to have robots fill out your next loan application.
I first noticed it a couple of years ago. There had never been squirrels in our back garden, suddenly there were. We peacefully coexisted with them until our yearly planting of tulip bulbs. You probably know this, I didn't, squirrels are quite fond of tulip bulbs. Daffodils they'll leave alone, but tulips are too delicious to resist. In this inter-species conflict, the squirrels were victorious. We no longer plant tulips.
As drought conditions continue year after year in California, the humans who live here attempt to maximize their supply of water. We need more fresh water for the continually growing population of the state. Our intense focus tends to obscure the need other creatures and habitats have for water. We're continually surprised when the animals follow the water into the cities.
Those of us in urban areas tend to view nature as something over there. A place you get in your car and drive to; a series of beautiful scenic postcards viewed through the windshield as we wind our way through the nature reserve. When it comes to preserving nature, it's a question of leaving undeveloped what is currently undeveloped. From the point of view of our global industrial economy, “nature” is unfulfilled potential; a state we allow to persist as a form of charity. A gift we give to ourselves and our posterity.
Meanwhile, ravens and raccoons have become residents of the urban landscape. The garbage we generate on a daily basis provides sustenance for an ever growing population. Squirrels and deer seek food and water in our gardens. Mountain lions follow their prey into suburban neighborhoods. Coyotes establish a presence in Golden Gate Park and humans walking their dogs are warned of the potential danger.
When our perception of the order of things is ruptured by an animal that intrudes on human space, our impulse is to set things right. Our moral standard is a judgement on whether or not the intruder is a clear and present danger to humans. Mountain lions are killed or captured. For the time being, coyotes are are allowed to live in the park. Deer, ravens, raccoons and squirrels are all tolerated with the proviso that they really shouldn't be here. We do not contemplate a path to citizenship.
Our futurists tell us that big and bigger cities are the answer to the efficient use of our diminishing natural resources. Our search is for a solution that allows more and more humans to subsist on the earth. Optimization requires a concentration of resources; global supply chains will connect a small number of very large urban hubs with the requisite resources. Every inch of the globe will be assessed based on its contribution to maintaining the network of mega-urban hubs. Of course, this kind of concentration increases the risk of catastrophic events. They used to call this kind of thing, “putting all your eggs in one basket.”
As we think about the design and architecture of these mega-urban spaces, we may believe that we act ecologically merely by virtue of moving toward “concentrated urban” over “broadly distributed rural.” The clever reversal is that “getting back to nature” now means getting much more densely packed and urban.
While there's some truth in this approach, it's not fully ecological because it's vision is limited to human social space. Does it take the deer, raccoons and ravens into account? Do they have a place in this new urban environment? What about coyotes, will they be welcome in the mega-urban future? Whether we plan for them or not, they're already citizens of our urban landscape. And as global warming continues to materially change the zones we've designated as “nature,” more species will cross the border into the urban zone in search of relief and a new life.
Today we have an architecture that is unable to anticipate that its buildings will have to coexist with pigeons in the shared urban landscape. Tomorrow (or rather today) we'll need to learn to coexist with a growing and increasingly diverse population of urban wildlife. And our questions may have to go beyond how coyotes and humans will coexist to how red tailed hawks and ravens will interact within our built mega urban enclosure.