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Primitive recreation?

“One gets impatient any time he is forced into a restricted or primitive mode of operation – except perhaps for recreational purposes.”

I may be taking a bit of a mental vacation this week, but above is the line from Engelbart’s discussion on Augmenting Human Intellect that has stuck with me. I definitely seek primitive modes of operation when I recreate. I knit. I bake. I run. I bike.  I do not own a television. Both of our cars have manual transmissions. However, in 2011, is there really such a thing as primitive modes of recreation, or am I just taking technological advances (and somebody else’s hard work) for granted?

Consider my bicycle. “Which one?”, my husband would grumble if he were reading this. “The new one”, I would answer sweetly.

taking the primitive mode of operation to my 25th high school reunion in NH

I do not think of myself as materialistic but I LOVE my Trek Madone 3.1. The frame is made of carbon, the tires are skinny and can be inflated to 120 psi, and I can lift it with two fingers. But is this really a primitive mode of operation? I did some investigation into contemporary practices in bicycle design. Here is one site I found: http://www.bikecad.ca/

BikeCAD is a pretty amazing bicycle design tool. I played around with the free version and was duly impressed. Imagine what a real bicycle designer can do with the professional version.  There is nothing primitive about my Madone, especially considering both the genius and the assistive technology behind the design.

But I haven’t been a cyclist very long. I have almost always been a runner. What could be more primitive? The only necessary equipment (at least for my 43 year old feet) is a pair of running shoes. A good pair lasts between 300 and 500 miles.

Gel Nimbus at about 350 miles.

In actuality, every time I lace up my shoes for a run, I say a little prayer of appreciation for the people who designed and manufactured them. These Nimbus carried me through the Blue Ridge Marathon (arguably “America’s toughest road marathon”) in torrential and unrelenting rain without a single blister (even though the rest of me felt “like an orange rind with most of the juice squeezed out”). What technology is used to design these shoes and the shoes of the future?

Meet Dan Toon and his colleagues who are utilizing assistive technologies not only in the design but also in the manufacturing phase to generate custom running shoes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFSiZgrdCZM

Maybe knitting and baking are my primitive outlets? Maybe not. Unlike Diane, I make liberal use of my bread machine. I do make pies the old fashioned way using my grandmother’s secret recipe for the crust and berries I picked myself  – humming along to the radio station that I created all by myself – on Pandora! I also knit by hand, and I prefer yarns that are hand dyed and even homespun, but I find most of my patterns at http://www.knittingpatterncentral.com/.

So perhaps primitive recreating is a myth, at least for me. Weiner said that we must value leisure. I laughed cynically  the first time I read that and even blamed advances in technology for my lack of leisure. I am sorry I said that. Clearly my leisure time is enhanced by technology and many good people who work and have worked in these new media. Their augmented intellect has truly enriched my life – at work and at play.16 Computer Assisted Design

 

Deus “in” machina

Reading Norbert Wiener’s “Men, Machines, and the World About” while still contemplating Vannevar Bush has left me fixated less on the machines and more on the men (and I do mean men, not people) who made them. Both Wiener and Bush were two of the men who made the machines of war. While reading Bush, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he felt an overarching sense of guilt for what he helped to create, the “machine” of war, and for those who died because of it. Reading Wiener, I have little doubt. He seems a man plagued by guilt and even fear of the genie he helped let of of the bottle, of the god in the machine.Both are motivated to forge ahead, to make sure that something good comes of the technological advances of war.

In attempt to better understand the context in which Bush and Wiener worked, to get a better feel for World War II, I am reading Slaughterhouse Five. I’m only a few chapters into the book, but it is clear already that Vonnegut was pretty messed up by his own experiences in the war, but I do not detect any guilt. I don’t know if he killed anyone during his service as a soldier, but if he did, he did so as a foot soldier, facing the same risk himself, not as a scientist tucked away in his lab on the other side of the Atlantic. Vonnegut suffered as a prisoner-of-war and perhaps that experience as vicitim replaced any lingering guilt. So it goes.

But what of the morality of Wiener and Bush? Wiener was clearly seduced by the opportunities the war presented him to tackle complex problems such as the automation of the anti-aircraft gun. Wiener gets so caught up in the problem and his chance at a solution that he justified his view of the gun operator and the gun as different parts of single machine.

I knew a scientist of the Cold War era who faced a similar dilemma as Wiener. Born in 1939 in a still-depressed coal mining town in southwest Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Air Force after high school and became a mechanic. After he was discharged, he became a mechanical engineer for a company that made semiconductors. After many years of service, he accepted a more lucrative offer to work at  a mega corporation of the military-industrial complex, in a division that made missile heads. He worked his way up to a Senior Industrial Engineer, not bad for a man without a college education save an associate’s degree in business earned in night school. This man was a passionate inventor and loved to fix anything that was broken. He was a man ahead of his time in terms of workers’ rights, and fought tirelessly to ban smoking in the work place. He refused to let anyone call the women who worked on the assembly lines “girls”, and he was an extraordinary mentor to the few female engineers who joined the company, fresh out of college. He hated war and killing of any sort. He spent his weekends hiking the White Mountains, watching birds and playing with his kids. Yet he continued to make machines that killed people. He did not attempt to rationalize this choice. He simply said that he needed a job to pay the bills, to feed his family.  He ended his career early, while he was only in his mid-fifties, after both mental and physical collapse. I cannot help but wonder whether he just could not bear to go on making machines that killed people.

He moved to Florida with his wife where he lived in peace for five years. He took long walks in the marshes and looked at birds. Then he was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Little was known about the etiology of this particular cancer, but there was  a high correlation with exposure to organic solvents of the kind young mechanics would practically bathe in after a day solving problems on the assembly lines in the semiconductor industry. Mechanics who not only made the machines, but were an integral part of Wiener’s machine. After a valiant two-year battle, he died on September 17, 2002. Unlike Vonnegut, I cannot say “so it goes.” I can only say, “I miss you Dad.”

Reactions to Bush

Not to George W, thank goodness. It has been several years since I’ve experienced reactions of that nature. Vannevar Bush, a man ahead of his time to be sure. As We May Think was published in 1945, the year my mother was born. It is difficult for me to even wrap my mind around that period in time. Outside of formal historical accounts, my knowledge of this period consists primarily of the reminiscing of the “Golden Girls”, my husband’s grandmother, great-aunt and godmother. Their reflections on this time are so captivating, they seem almost fictional, and I suspect that parts of their stories probably are.

I can grasp 1945 better from the narrowed perspective of a cell and molecular biologist. By 1945, DNA was characterized chemically and had been proposed as the physical stuff of heredity, but the structure had not been fully resolved by Franklin, Watson, Crick and others.  With that framework in mind, what did Bush have to say in 1945?

“For the biologists…..their war has hardly required them to leave their old paths…. Their objectives remain much the same.” OUCH! Unfortunately, I think many cell and molecular biologists accepted this invitation to leave the party. I do not disagree that their objectives post-war were largely unchanged, but many sub-disciplines of cell and molecular biology remained divorced from the developing concept of memex for far too long. Sure, every scientist uses the web. PubMed is a great example. However, the evolving concept of memex as a tool for truly organizing and more importantly for generating novel insight into the complex interacting network of genes, proteins, enzymes that determining the behavior of a cell was left to a handful of computational biologists who were largely dismissed by their peers.  The reductionist approach of one gene at a time or even the option to explore the expression of a few hundred genes at a time due to advances in the “omics” was lagged by a concerted effort to tie all of these pieces of information together to describe the behaviors or systems and derive new meaning using mathematical and computational approaches.  Fortunately, we cell biologists are catching up and the field even has a name: molecular systems biology.

Another quote from Bush: “we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers-“. Bogged down in 1945 – you’ve got to be kidding me. Out of curiosity, I conducted a PubMed search using the query “cell cycle” –broadly my field of expertise, limiting the search to all of the articles published up through 1945. I found 22 articles. Hardly a bogging-down amount, although I admit that PubMed did not actually exist in 1945, so some scholarly works from earlier times may not be represented. By 1968, the year I was born, there were 12,784 articles tagged as “cell cycle”. Too many to read efficiently, perhaps, but still a manageable library in which to make effective sub-searches. Today, there are 354,781 such articles. Mr. Bush, I am officially “bogged down”.

 

I could blog all semester about this piece, but I’ll stop at one last reaction. Bush writes: “For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter, there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.” I LOVE this idea, but somehow, I am not sure it is working for me, and possibly not for society as a whole. We no longer need to dedicate the time to the repetitive tasks of arithmetic or even integration by parts, but are we any more creative? I fear I may be bogged down. By 354,781 articles for which I spent about 25 seconds searching, but could not actually read in a lifetime. By hundreds of e-mails per day, some from my most interesting colleagues, but rarely the time to sit down at a coffee shop with any one of them to work on “mature thought” because I spend two or three hours a day answering e-mails. Da Vinci was rich in mature thought without the aid of Adobe Ilustrator. So was Thoreau camped out in the woods. I do not disagree with Bush’s belief that new media and technology have the potential to liberate us to be engaged in more creative enterprises. I feel surrounded by such people and their creations. But there may be some necessary societal shifts before the rest of us will regularly benefit from that liberating space for creativity. I am looking forward to it. Perhaps blogging will be one helpful tool. Coffee anyone?