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Teeming Links – September 27, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s opening and presiding word comes from Jonathan Franzen:

While we are busy tweeting, texting and spending, the world is drifting towards disaster, believes Jonathan Franzen, whose despair at our insatiable technoconsumerism echoes the apocalyptic essays of the satirist Karl Kraus — “the Great Hater.”

Nowadays, the refrain is that “there’s no stopping our powerful new technologies”. Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren’t going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability — and who wouldn’t want them? — we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

. . . The sea of trivial or false or empty data is millions of times larger now. Kraus was merely prognosticating when he envisioned a day when people had forgotten how to add and subtract; now it’s hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain’s responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I’m enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces’ birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.

— Jonathan Franzen, “What’s wrong with the modern world,” The Guardian, Friday, September 13, 2013

(Note that Franzen’s words in this piece have generated a large and varied response and backlash.)

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Elites’ strange plot to take over the world (Salon)
“A few decades ago, politicians hatched a Tom Friedman-esque idea to unite U.S. and Western Europe. Did it succeed? Once we recognize that the Cold War saw the construction of a powerful international regime that explicitly sought to get rid of sovereign nations, these broad security architectures revealed by the Syria situation and the NSA spying revelations make a lot more sense.”

Pope condemns idolatry of cash in capitalism (The Guardian)
“Pope Francis has called for a global economic system that puts people and not ‘an idol called money’ at its heart. The 76-year-old said that God had wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world. ‘But now, in this ethics-less system, there is an idol at the centre and the world has become the idolater of this “money-god”,’ he added.”

From Crystal to Christ: A Once and Future Cathedral (First Things)
On the prominent and painful-to-watch implosion of Robert Schuller’s positive-thinking-based Protestant Christian ministry. “The implosion of the Crystal Cathedral can be explained in many ways — dysfunctional family dynamics, financial hard times, lack of wise leadership, and a changing religious climate. Moreover, today’s digital generation has no time for a whole ‘hour’ of power from anyone — two minutes on YouTube is enough! But long before the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, another kind of insolvency was at work eating away at the soul of the enterprise.”

DNA Doubletake (The New York Times)
“From biology class to ‘C.S.I.,’ we are told again and again that our genome is at the heart of our identity. Not long ago, researchers had thought it was rare for the cells in a single healthy person to differ genetically in a significant way. But scientists are finding that it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes.”

A Toddler on 3 Different Psychiatric Meds? How Drugging Kids Became Big Business (AlterNet)
“Big pharma has discovered a lucrative new market in kids. The most recent estimates suggest that up to eight million American kids are on one or more psychiatric medications. Meds for kids are big business and highly profitable.”

Changing brains: Why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era (The Guardian)
“The big money has moved from developing psychiatric drugs to manipulating our brain networks. . . . Advances in neuroscience are not just discoveries. They also shape, as they always have done, how we view ourselves. As the Prozac nation fades, the empire of the circuit-based human will rise, probably to the point where dinner party chatter will include the misplaced jargon of systems neuroscience.”

Google vs. Death (Time, via 2045)
“How CEO Larry Page has transformed the search giant into a factory for moonshots. Our exclusive look at his boldest bet yet — to extend human life.”

Science: The religion that must not be questioned (The Guardian)
Fascinating: A senior editor at Nature not only points out the unduly quasi-religious attitude toward science that has infected public perception for many decades but argues that current journalism only exacerbates the problem: “TV programmes on science pursue a line that’s often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy — somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable.”

The_Secrets_of_Alchemy_by_Lawrence_PrincipeNo nearer the Philosopher’s Stone (The Times Literary Supplement)
“Lawrence M. Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy is a deeply gratifying book that brilliantly unveils the hidden wonders of that most shadowy and misunderstood art. Alchemy has not always been associated with esoteric mystics muttering necromantic incantations in the quest for spiritual purification. For much of its history, Principe reveals, alchemy was recognized as a sophisticated pursuit entailing the vigorous exertion of mind and hand, a convergence of laboratory experimentation and theoretical speculation that yielded spectacular control of chemical processes.”

Talk with me (Aeon)
“Western philosophy has its origins in conversation, in face-to-face discussions about reality, our place in the cosmos, and how we should live. The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society.”

Silencing the Djinns (City Journal)
A dam project is threatening the ancient city of Hasankeyf, nestled between the Tigris River and the steep cliffs of the Tur Abdin Plateau in southeastern Turkey. This article talks about the clash of spiritual cultures that this development represents. “Here one can see every aspect of urban life in the middle centuries of Islamic civilization, when power shifted from Baghdad and Cairo to Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi. So it is hardly a surprise to learn that there are djinns here, too. ‘There are as many djinns as there are people in the world,’ [shepherd Ali Ayhan] says firmly. ‘But we live in the shining places, and they live in the dark places. That valley is for them.'”

Welcome to Gattaca: The rise of consumer-priced genetic sequencing

 

Ever since James Watson and Francis Crick cracked the genetic code, scientists have been fascinated by the possibilities of what we might learn from reading our genes. But the power of DNA has also long raised fears — such as those dramatized in the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca, which depicted a world where “a minute drop of blood determines where you can work, who you should marry, what you’re capable of achieving.” That was science fiction. Just three years later, President Bill Clinton announced that the once-futuristic dream of reading someone’s entire genetic code — their genome — had become a reality. It took hundreds of scientists nearly a decade to painstakingly piece together the first real look at the entire human genetic blueprint. It cost $3 billion just to make that rough draft. Twelve years later, the cost of deciphering a person’s genetic instructions has dropped faster than the price of flat-screen TVs. And the sequencing can be done much quicker. Instead of years, it can take just weeks. Instead of an army of scientists, all it takes is a new high-speed sequencing machine and a few lab techs. Instead of billions, it can cost as little as $4,000. And many are predicting the $1,000 genome is coming soon.

… “It is not theoretical or futuristic. It is today. And it is everyone,” said George Church, a Harvard geneticist who started the Personal Genome Project. The project is trying to recruit thousands of people around the world to get sequenced and post their genomes on the Internet, along with as much detailed personal information as possible. “We are hoping to get a preview of personalized medicine — and share that preview worldwide,” Church said.

… With the price approaching the cost of getting an MRI, many predict that sequencing will soon become part of routine medical care … Scientists recently even sequenced a fetus in the womb, raising the possibility of everyone getting sequenced before or at birth — a prospect with a whole new set of questions and concerns … Despite the concerns, it’s clear that more and more people are going to be getting their genomes sequenced. The question is: Is society really ready for this flood of genetic information and everything that comes along with getting to know our genomes so well?

— Rob Stein, “As Genetic Sequencing Spreads, Excitement, Worries Grow,” Morning Edition, NPR, September 18, 2012

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