Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cory Doctorow: Eastern Standard Tribe

Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe takes place in a high-speed near future of advanced technology. It jumps around in time, with flashes back and forward getting about equal time.

Art Berry is a member of the Eastern Standard Tribe, a granfaloon of people synchronized to Eastern Standard Time, regardless of where they live. Art has been serving EST as a double agent working for the Greenwich 0 Tribe in London, but his erstwhile partner and his paramour have conspired to get him committed to an asylum so they can exploit his latest invention unhindered.

Art feels very similar to Charles Stross' Manfred Macx from Accelerando: a high tech entrepreneur living a life two sigmas faster than those around him, inventing constantly, and caught up in other people's conspiracies. Art is a human factors designer who has a good feel for the zeitgeist, and enough reputation that he has no trouble getting backing to implement outlandish ideas and see whether they'll catch on quickly.

The plot-line associated with the asylum has the paranoid feeling of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". On one hand, Art's friends really were out to get him, but on the other hand, once you're sent to an asylum, there's no way to convince the doctors that you're sane, especially if you try to ask them how to prove you're not crazy. Art's inventiveness serves him in good stead here, as he manages to find a way to cause a ruckus that allows him to contact a sympathetic and influential psychiatrist who believes his story.

The story is well-told, but without depth or broad implications. The most interesting aspects are the world building and Art's struggle to get out of the asylum. The former is well-played; it's a believable fast-paced world with a constant introduction of new toys and tools, but most of the population is unaware of the constant struggle to invent and deliver the things they use. I enjoyed the story, but it's not more than an entertaining diversion.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nick Humphrey: Seeing Red

Nick Humphrey's Seeing Red is another attempt to explain consciousness, but from a slightly different angle. Humphrey clearly understands what it would mean to produce an explanation, and makes some progress on the task. Humphrey starts not with what it means to think about something or to be aware of something, but with the more fundamental fact of perception of something outside of ourselves. The focal perception is of a red sensation. There's something in your environment that produces the perception of redness. What just happened to you? What does it mean that it makes you sense the presence of red? Why can you share this experience with others who also perceive the redness or with people who aren't present but still understand what you mean?

Humphrey first concentrates his attention on the internal details: first you perceive, then you become aware that you are perceiving. You may put words to the sensation or you might not, but Humphrey takes pains to point out that the perceiving and awareness are two separate facts. If you then talk to someone else about the perception (which you can do because you're aware of it), then of necessity each of you has some kind of "theory of mind"; a mental model that represents the fact that whatever it means to perceive, you are something that can do it, and other people are capable of the same thing.

Having set these aspects of reality out, Humphrey goes to some trouble to demonstrate that they are separate facets of reality, and all need to be present in an actual explanation. He talks about things like 'blindsight' and optical illusions in order to convince people who aren't keeping up that all these things are distinct facets of reality and need to be distinct in any explanation.

In the second half of this small book, Humphrey explains that consciousness arises out of the neurons in the brain, and that their role is to reflect and represent what's really going on in the world. He wants to present an evolutionary explanation of why they arose, but he only really justifies the fact that they are useful. The mechanism and history that allowed a feedback process between sensing and acting to arise and be passed down as a competitive advantage eludes him. And he doesn't have much to say about how the neural substrate might represent facts about reality in such a way that it could actually be useful to an aware, active agent interacting with the world.

My bottom line is that this book lays out the issues fairly clearly in a way that ought to be interesting and convincing to someone who is just starting to think about how consciousness might work, but the explanations fall short of answering the deeper questions. On the other hand, Humphrey's stated goal in the book is to show that consciousness matters and that it can be productive to think carefully about it. That much he succeeded at.