I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.
This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.
Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.
Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?
BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.
But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.
The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.
The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.
Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!
I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.
I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.
Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.
What is the essence of corruption? This is a question raised by the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence around Citizens United v. FEC. For Justice Kennedy and the Court has concluded, as a matter of law, that only quid pro quo corruption is corruption. An out and out bribe is corrupting, but throwing a congressman a $100,000 party or treating them to fancy meals and trendy restaurants, that is just exercising the right to freely speak with one's elected representatives. That such lavish expenditures come with expectations is, the Court insists, improvable and simply part and parcel of our democratic system.
In Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig explores fully the impact of such "soft" corruption. He writes that the enemy we face today is not a Hitler or even the good Germans who would enable a Hitler. "Our enemy," Lessig writes, "is the good Germans (us) who would enable a harm infinitely less profound, yet economically and politically catastrophic nonetheless. A harm caused by a kind of corruption. But not the corruption engineered by evil souls. Indeed, strange as this might sound, a corruption crafted by good souls. By decent men. And women." Such a crime, he insists, is banal, but "not the banal in the now-overused sense of Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil—of ordinary people enabling unmatched evil (Hitler's Germany). Our banality is one step more, well, banal."
Lessig is right to worry that Arendt's phrase is overused, but what is more banal in the banality he so penetratingly describes in his book? In any case, his book better describes the kind of endemic corruption that infects our political system than any other. It should be read.
It is also important to remember that real corruption still exists in our world. It may be more a rarity at a time when one can accomplish so much corruption through legal means, but examples of bold and brazen corruption remain.
Lance Armstrong's web of corruption that silenced and intimidated dozens of his colleagues for over a decade is one example of how corruption can succeed, against all odds, but only for a time. Rumors of Armstrong's drug use floated around for a decade, and yet he still denies it. It took years for the web of deceit to break. As the NY Daily News wrote in an excellent review of the scandal:
The Armstrong myth was so lucrative that suppressing the truth came to require an endless behind-the-scenes campaign to bully and intimidate people into silence. Some of it bordered on gangsterism. Some of it was dressed up in the respectable wardrobe of elite law firms. But mostly it was just hot air - a fact that by 2010 had become clear enough to Floyd Landis that he stepped up and burst the bubble, blowing the whistle on the whole big fraud.
We tend to ignore corruption because it seems so inconceivable in our age of transparency. Corruption requires that the truth be kept hidden. This is extremely difficult and possible only through force and violence and even terror. But eventually, the truth comes out. As Hannah Arendt wrote in another context, "holes of oblivion do not exist." Eventually, the truth will emerge, no matter how many interests and how much money and violence is spent in the futile effort to prevent that from happening.
What brings to mind these brief reflections on the continued efficacy of corruption as well as its eventual failure is an article recently published in The Nation on the Hershey Trust. The author of the story is Ric Fouad, who is also a member of the Arendt Center's Board of Advisors. He is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School and together with a handful of other activists has been fighting a lonely battle against what he sees as the corruption of the Hershey Trust's Board, a fight that for him is inspired by Hannah Arendt's insistence on both truth, courage, and public action.
A little background. Milton Hershey was not just a brilliant chocolatier who had a radical vision of making chocolate—previously marketed only to the wealthy—available to the masses. He was also profoundly philanthropic. Unable to have children, Hershey left his entire personal fortune to the Hershey Trust, whose mission was to administer The Milton Hershey School, a school that Hershey founded to help and educate orphaned boys—the school is now coed and serves children with living parents. That fortune is now worth nearly $8 billion.
By his own account, Milton Hershey's life work would be to help orphaned children, whose plight touched him deeply. Hershey wanted his school to bring orphans into a revolutionary new kind of school, free from industrial buildings common to orphanages. The children were to live in beautiful homes in a bucolic paradise on 12,000 acres of land. They were to work on farms to learn character and attend a school that includes a vocational curriculum as well and have great teachers. It had all the potential to be an extraordinary facility set in truly magnificent settings.
So what is not to like? Well, for one thing, the Hershey Trust has been under investigation for six years, with no resolution and amidst plenty of accusations and charges about misspent funds and broken trust. The bucolic community-wide children's home was telescoped into a crowded centralized campus; the farms were all closed; the vocational program barely survives; and the poorest children, wards of the court, and foster care children came to be rejected in favor of what the administrators deemed a "better" class of child. Local developers made tens of millions in the process.
Tasked with administering the Milton Hershey School, the Trust's incredible resources enabled it to do much else besides. This could be an amazing opportunity to do good. It could also and become a magnet for powerful and connected people who finagled their ways onto the Hershey Trust board in order to access and control the vast wealth the Hershey Trust possessed. And that is what the article in The Nation, as well as numerous investigative articles here, here, and here, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, have alleged. You can also watch Ric Fouad's Harvard Law School lecture "Hershey's Broken Trust" here.
In Republic, Lost, Lessig writes:
The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself.
As true as that is about government, it is also true for cycling legends and political clubs. When corruption of all kinds pervades institutions throughout our society, it is only natural that cynicism abounds and we lose faith in the process of government as well as in the integrity of business. It is time to take corruption seriously in this country, and not explain it away as something that happens elsewhere in less civilized and less democratic countries.
You can read an excerpt of Lessig's Republic, Lost... here, at Amazon.com, where you can also buy his book.
The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
Just yesterday Republican Candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich began running a television ad called "Timid or Bold." The point is to contrast his own apparently bold leadership with Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's supposedly timid style—a style and substance the ad compares with that of Barack Obama. Only Gingrich, so the ad implies, has the courage and daring to take the steps need to right the ship of state.
Whatever one makes of their diverse policies, the spat between Gingrich and Romney highlights a basic ambivalence about leadership in modern politics. On the one hand, we crave a bold and brash leader—look at the groundswell of support for first Hermann Cain, then Newt Gingrich, and then Ron Paul. On the other hand, we are quick to abandon such leaders as soon as their foibles, eccentricities, infidelities, and crimes are brought into the light of day. We demand of leaders today a moral probity that would have toppled giants like Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. This is of course not to compare the current Republican candidates to these leaders, but merely to point out that there is today a deep desire for a leader who can break out of the mold of technocratic political hack and, at the same time, a fear of those who shoot from the hip, take chances, and make mistakes.
The political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz writes that,
Successful leaders establish [their] persona not by describing their attributes and values to us, but by simply living them.
Leaders are like "superstars," those who connect viscerally with their people. They do so, via authenticity. Leaders must be unhesitating, direct, and assured. They must "show" their decisiveness, and not simply tell it. The best politicians are "always true to themselves." As Luntz puts it, "You cannot get away with acting in politics for too long."
Luntz is right, which is why what he says so terrifies me. For as we demand of our politicians ever more authentic leadership at the very moment when the politicians themselves have retreated behind the opacity of spin, counter-spin, and double-speak. At no time have politicians been such consummate actors; or, at the very least, at no other time have they been so clearly seen to be so. We live in a moment of unparalleled transparency coupled with an unspeakable fear of revelation. The result is that the American people vacillate between an impossible hope for a political superstar and the unyielding despair that such leadership is no longer possible.
Few people have thought so deeply about the activity of politics as Hannah Arendt. One who did, however, was Max Weber. In 1918 Weber delivered his lecture "Politics as a Vocation" at the invitation of a group of radicalized students. Weber's lecture famously draws a distinction between two motives of political leadership, an ethic conviction and an ethic of responsibility.
Weber’s ethic of responsibility holds that while a responsible politician takes both ends and means into account, he must be willing to employ violence to fight for the good. On the other hand, Weber’s ethic of conviction is best exemplified by religious actors: “A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God.” With Thoreau, the adherent of the ethics of conviction says: let the world be damned so long as I am saved. Fiat Justitia, pereat mundus. It is just such an absolutist ethic of conviction that Arendt condemns in her essay Truth and Politics.
Weber affirms the necessary opposition between these two ethics. “It is not possible,” he writes, “to reconcile an ethics of conviction with an ethics of responsibility.” Nevertheless, after twice reaffirming the fundamental antagonism between the two ethics, Weber qualifies his distinction. While politicians must act responsibly according to the rational dictates of the head, there is as well a need for heartfelt conviction. Weber remains skeptical of political appeals to the heart; most politicians who do so are sentimental and manipulative “windbags. And yet, Weber writes:
I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being—whether young or old in actual years is immaterial—who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’
When a responsible politician, aware of the consequences of his actions, decides to rationally take an unbending stand, then, Weber argues, he acts both as a politician and as a human being. Such an act “is authentically human and cannot fail to move us.” There is, in the action of a fully human politician, the recognition of the tragic nature of political action. The politician takes his ethical stand fully aware of the foreseeable and even the potentially unforeseeable consequences that may follow. In this sense, then, “an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.’”
The point is that politics is a difficult calling, one that requires both mature responsibility and also brash and bold decisiveness—and also the judgment to know when each is called for. And at certain times, any great politician must be willing to throw away success and popularity for a cause he believes in. Thus:
Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.
Which brings us to my favorite lines from the end of Politics as a Vocation:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. [A]ll historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.
We would do well to have some politicians meditate on Weber's account of the political calling. But if they won't, you should. Weber's essay is here for you to read over this first weekend of this critical election year.