1.22.2008

Cognitive Enhancement, The Book

As a few readers of this blog know, since last summer I've been working on a large writing project. The tentative plan is for a book, and the release date is unknown. I'm about 60,000 words in, most of the argumentative structure and key points are there, and there's lots and lots of work on the prose left to do. I've dedicated this next week to being a mental health week. It's my first real break since summer... hopefully I can actually keep myself to it and decompress a little. Trying to write a book is a lot more brain-space intensive than I thought it'd be.

I was trying to explain exactly what I'm writing about to some friends, and having some difficulty... and I have an executive summary due in a couple weeks. So I'll take this opportunity to try to explain a little bit about just what this big project that's been soaking up most of my time is about.

The topic is cognitive enhancement. As in, drugs, gene therapy, treatments, or other sorts of technology that will make a person smarter in noticeable, meaningful, and multidimensional ways. I've outlined seven different potential technological routes to "first-generation" cognitive enhancement, and I think/hope/plan that this book will end up being a pretty good overview of what the field of cognitive enhancement will look like in the coming years. I've hopes to get into the genetics, pharmacology, supporting research advancements, major hurdles, likely dead-end approaches, and neuroscience/psychology surrounding this field, as well to cover things like what IQ does (and doesn't) mean, social influences on intelligence, the concept of 'neuroengineering', somatic vs germline enhancements, and what caveats and limitations will likely go along with these potential enhancements. What sorts of complexity can be sidestepped, and what sorts of complexity will need to be tackled head-on. I'd say about 60% of it will deal with the science and systems theory involved (but I'll try to make it interesting, promise!).

(At least, that's an overview of the science stuff I hope to figure out and fit in. Actual results may vary considerably.)

The other 40% will cover the policy and ethics issues which go with the idea of 'enhancement'-- thoughts about how these technologies may stress the fabric of society, and some important things for scientists and policymakers to keep in mind. I'm neither "pro" nor "con" enhancement: I just think it'll happen. In fact, to sum up the message of the book, I'd say this:

Significant cognitive enhancement is going to happen sooner than most people, even most experts, think. These seven distinct approaches are viable, and if even one of them works, it'll transform society in many ways. We should start thinking about the implications and ideal forms of these technologies now, so we have choices about how they enter the world.

So that's my current project. I'm really excited about it. There are a lot of "ifs" in making it happen. Honestly, I think if I write half the book I want to write I'll be happy.

1.21.2008

Obama, and keeping honest bloggers honest

I try hard to keep away from politics and religion here at Modern Dragons. They make for divisive discussions, people (including myself) tend to have all sorts of dogmatic baggage about these topics, and often I have very little to add that can't be found elsewhere. But I think it's an unhealthy trend in modern life to turn vast swaths of the public sphere completely apolitical. The political process is messy and divisive, but if we remove it from our day to day life, or even try to segment society into "political zones" and "non-political zones" I think democracy breaks down.

So, here's a little dip into politics on a mostly apolitical blog.

Obama
I'm solidly behind Obama for president. Of all the candidates, I feel he most appreciates complexity, most understands the nature of corruption, and is most able to generate, adapt, and implement a positive vision for America. He's not perfect-- but I believe in him like I've never believed in any other political candidate.

Two items I would point readers who are curious about Obama toward are
1. Ars Technica's coverage of Obama's technology proposal;
2. Lawrence Lessig on why he supports Barack.

Steve Sailer
A rather odd thing about my political leaning is that, though I'm a fairly committed liberal, my favorite political blogger is the pretty hardcore conservative (and decidedly maverick) Steve Sailer. I'd like to say something high-minded like reading a conservative blogger was a conscious choice to diversify my information stream, but the fact of the matter is it wasn't: Steve is just the most engaging, self-critically honest, and fair political blogger I've found. Very smart as well, and drawn to what I think are important topics. Often, very difficult and divisive topics I would never feel comfortable writing about, but topics I see real value in building open discussions around. Maybe I'm corrupting my mind by reading Steve, but I simply haven't found a liberal political blogger of his blogging caliber (suggestions in the comments welcome!). So while we disagree on plenty of things, the way he approaches his topics compels me to take what he says seriously.

Steve's Latest Column
Steve has been writing a lot about Obama. His latest VDare column delves into questions of Obama's racial and religious identity, largely drawing from Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father and connections between Obama and the pastor of Obama's church. Like most of Steve's VDare columns, I don't think it's as fair or as balanced as what's on his personal blog. In fact, though I don't have any objections to its factual content, it may be the worst thing Steve has ever written in how it selectively engages some facts in order to tar someone's public persona. I think it's unintentional and completely non-malicious, at worst just willful selective engagement and willful ignorance of how the piece (and its 20+ siblings) will be interpreted.

Maybe I'm a little touchy when it comes to my political candidate. And maybe I'm a liberal, Steve's a conservative, and never shall we see eye to eye. But lots of Steve's other regular readers have been commenting about his odd and continuing implicit criticisms of Obama- I don't think I'm way out of line, bringing it up.

If it were some political hack writing this I wouldn't care. And Steve is entitled to run his blog as he sees fit. But damn it, Steve, you're my favorite political blogger. I'm not going to give you a free pass.

So in the interest of keeping an honest blogger honest, here's my reply to Steve's column (a draft of which was posted in the comments). One sentence version: Steve, you say you actually kinda like Obama? Prove it.

Based on this, and your 20+ other recent postings on Obama which largely concentrate on these issues, I believe you have an impressively nuanced (and, I think, generally fair) understanding of Obama's racial and religious identity. You touch on a lot of very interesting things in fresh ways.

But having said that, you write very critically, and your choice of topics-- both to write so much about Obama and not any other candidate, and to concentrate on racial and religious identity issues, at the expense of other candidates and other topics-- is not a neutral action. You've said you actually kinda like the guy, but these writing choices change the discussion, and I believe they hurt Obama's candidacy. If that's your intention, that's your intention, and I'll butt out- but based on what you've said in the past, I don't think that's what you mean to be doing.

To put it less delicately, if you don't want to be an accessory to electing someone you really dislike, such as Clinton, I think you should broaden your coverage of candidates or topics, or put a stronger "I actually like Obama because X, Y, and Z" disclaimer on your writings. Because, regardless of your intentions, I feel pieces like these generate and nurture anti-Obama feelings.

Tangentially... after reading your blog for years, I'm surprised you seem to identify so strongly with the Republican party. I think one can have good reasons to support the Republican party-- historically, at least, they've been the party of competence and realism-- but in your case, the blind consistency of support is a datapoint that doesn't really fit. You're not dogmatic about anything else-- why do you still consistently back said horse, especially after the dog's breakfast that neocons (and to some extent evangelicals) have made of things these past few years? Income from what you see as your base, perhaps. Income is important. And insidiously persuasive. I'm very far from calling your blogging money-driven or corrupt-- you're the least corrupt, most open-minded political blogger I've come across. That's why I read you. But I read these critical analyses of Democratic candidates, and I wait for similarly incisive analyses of Republican candidates, and they don't show up.

Well, maybe that's a bit of a cheap shot. Maybe not. It's hard to say.

To get back to my original point... you seem to secretly appreciate Obama. At least, you seem to have much less disdain for him than almost any other candidate. Why not write about some of his good attributes for a change? At minimum, you've said he's an interesting candidate-- I understand you write about what you know (and I wouldn't have it any other way, and Obama did write a book tackling his racial identity, so you're not just shooting in the dark), but surely there are non-racial and non-religious attributes about this complex candidate you find interesting enough to write about?

Mike.