Sunday, April 08, 2007

Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization (Kevin Kelly)

Somewhere inside the middling 521-page Out of Control is a really, really great 350-page book trying to get out. Which is unfortunate, because Kelly—at the time the executive editor of Wired, and currently billed as its “chief maverick”—tackles a lot of very interesting subjects, and clearly has an affinity for them as well as the natural curiosity that makes for great science and technology writing. But mostly reading this book just made me really wish someone like Oliver Sacks or Malcolm Gladwell had written it instead—or that, at the very least, he could have had much better editing than he did.

The book focuses on complex, distributed, adaptable systems such as biological organisms and superorganisms, computer networks, and swarms of various types, which takes Kelly across such diverse subjects as the Biosphere 2 project and other “closed systems,” artificial evolution, industrial ecology, military simulations, robotics and artificial intelligence (and the nature of human intelligence itself), and predicting the future—all very compelling stuff. The problem was that I found that I was having to enjoy the information in spite of Kelly’s writing, rather than because of it (or, better, without having to notice it at all). I’ll often flag things when I read, and one way to tell how much I’m liking a book is to compare the ratio of things I’m flagging as “Wow!” to those I’m flagging as “This seems awfully silly.” And although there were a lot of things I liked about Out of Control, I also found myself flagging an awful lot of things for silliness. He often seemed to spend four or five pages making a point he could have said in one or two, and was prone to wild, pseudo-profound generalizations like the following:

  • “While every human is born pretty much the same, every death is different. If a coroner’s cause-of-death certificates were exact, each one would be unique.” (This is barely more true of death than of birth—if a doctor’s birth report were exact, each one would be unique too, and by the same token, plenty of people have died very similar deaths.)
  • “Snake is linear, but when it feeds back into itself it becomes the archetype of nonlinear being. In the classical Jungian framework, the tail-biting Uroborus is the symbolic depiction of the self. The completeness of the circle is the self-containment of self, a containment that is at the same time made of one thing and made of competing parts. The flush toilet, then, as the plainest manifestation of a feedback loop, is a mythical beast—the beast of self.” (The abstract academic language is bad enough, and the flush toilet simply can’t support this level of grandiosity. I had to stop and search for signs that he was trying to be funny, and found none.)
  • “Stripped of all secondary motives, all addictions are one: to make a world of our own.” (This is the kind of thing that sounds good until you try to figure out what it means—how, exactly, are alcoholics or heroin addicts trying to make a world of their own? I have no idea. I thought they were trying to satisfy a chemical dependency.)
  • “So few long-term predictions prove correct that statistically they are all wrong. Yet, by the same statistical measure, so many short term [sic] predictions are right, that all short-term predictions are right.” (What he’s trying to say is that people in the prediction business know that they cannot rely on long-term predictions, because so few of them are right—which is a far cry from saying that in fact they are all wrong. Applying the word “statistically” doesn’t change “few are right” to “none are right.” If anything, it makes the statement even less true.)
He also expends a lot of words on dubious imaginative journeys through history (the invention of “autonomous control” in ninth-century China) and more esoteric terrain (searching Borges’s Infinite Library for a copy of his own as-yet-unfinished Out of Control), and on hopelessly clunky constructions like “This hardware quarantine has been a prime factor in the nonhappening of this future” and odd similes like “The CPU, no larger than a soggy cornflake. . . . ”

Which isn’t to say that it’s a terrible book—in fact, the reason I found the writing and editing (or lack thereof) so frustrating was that the material itself was so fascinating, and I wanted to like it. He’s at his best when discussing cutting-edge technology and possible futures—computer simulations, robotics, artificial life—and although he loses his way a bit when he involves himself in philosophy and more general science, he does always takes them on with an obvious and genuine enthusiasm.

But still, on finishing it, I was mostly relieved that I could finally get back to Dance Dance Dance.

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