A lot of people don’t know this, but we once thought cyborg sex might be a bad idea. Back in the 2010s, serious concerns were raised by prominent scholars that sex robots were made by men, for men. The general consensus was that cyborg sex would further support the notion that women’s bodies were available for objectification, sexual gratification, and violence.
Indeed, in the dawn of sex robots and dolls, the evidence was concerning: we saw hordes of male customers, and the robots were typically created to mimic young, passive sex bimbos. Men were even losing the ability to differentiate between “real” and “robot” wives, and people feared that the advent of robot lovers would further create asymmetry in the “marriage market” for women—that women would be confined and pressured into settling for archaic, misogynistic, or even abusive romantic situations.
In short, the advent of cyborg sex was seen as destabilizing, and it was largely expected to tilt the power further toward men.
Now, more than fifty years later, that curious beginning is laughably remote from our current-day relationship with our cyborg lovers, and the evolution of cyborg sex warrants telling.
In the mid-1990s, when I was a student of creative writing, there prevailed a quiet but firm admonition to avoid composing political poems. It was too dangerous an undertaking, one likely to result in didacticism and slackened craft. No, in American poetry, politics was the domain of the few and the fearless, poets like Adrienne Rich or Denise Levertov, whose outsize conscience justified such risky behavior. Even so, theirs weren’t the voices being discussed in workshops and craft seminars.
Maybe it was our relative political stability that kept Americans from stepping into the fray. Perhaps America’s individualism predisposed its poets toward the lyric poem, with its insistence on the primacy of a single speaker whose politics were intimate, internal, invisible. Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, and the war in Iraq, and something shifted in the nation’s psyche.
It’s a big universe out there, full of an astonishing variety of questions and puzzles. Today’s guest, Janna Levin, is a physicist who has delved into some of the trippiest aspects of cosmology and gravitation: the topology of the universe, extra dimensions of space, and the appearance of chaos in orbits around black holes. At the same time, she has been a pioneer in talking about science in interesting and innovative ways: a personal memoir, a novelized narrative of famous scientific lives, and a journalistic exploration of one of the most important experiments of our time. We talk about how one shapes an unusual scientific career, and how the practice of science relates to more traditionally humanistic concerns.
In an interview that he gave near the end of his life, Williams says that most of his efforts in philosophy are focused on this point: “to make some sense of the ethical as opposed to throwing out the whole thing because you can’t have an idealized version” (Williams’s emphasis). He pursues this fundamental theme by way of his two-sided critique of what he calls “the morality system”. It is two-sided because not only does it aim to discredit the forms of “idealization” that the morality system has encouraged, it also seeks to provide an account of what we are left with when we discard or abandon its assumptions and aspirations. His central text for this programme is Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985). Understood this way, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy constitutes Williams’s pivotal work, in part because it is his most ambitious and wide-ranging. Beyond that, however, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy both brings together the diverse threads and strands of his earlier work – much of which is critical in character – and lays the foundation for his later work, particularly his last two books: Shame and Necessity (1993) and Truth and Truthfulness (2002). All these contributions “hang together” (to use Williams’s own expression). In the final analysis, it is not possible to have a complete understanding of the central concerns of Williams’s philosophy without putting Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy at the heart of it.
Writers are my nepenthe. They alone saved my soul more akin to peyote than some mundane substance. The best kind of therapy. Workshops and journals get holy sometimes. My jones gets going. They are sanctified stages. But other places are like certain com- mercial hospitals (where bloods are sold). I don’t dig their evange- lists. I be on the side of the free but don’t come cheap. Ain’t into no slave labor. Writing is still my nepenthe. Makes me feel better ’cause I hear the messengers. From: the right reverend amiri/seer sonia/sister sandra maria/the wizard wonder/uncle etheridge/cler- ic rakim/minister morrison/saviour sekou/baba john/deacon diva lisa/empress erykah/rector victor cruz/zoastrian zora hurston/trix- ter darius/freemason mosley/fundamentalist yusef/priestess pat landrum/heirophant hattie gossett/holy roller nona hendrix/ecu- menical ethelbert/monkess jayne cortez/guru babs gonzalez/preacher quincy/his funkness formerly known as/deacon steve cannon/ and sunday teacher ted joans/they let me lay my burden low. they are the runaway from which I go! yeah, so, writers are my nepenthe. Writers are….
by Tracie Morris from: Intermission Soft Skull Press, 1998
This is a novel about double-dealing, about honourable and dishonourable forms of duplicity, about multiple impersonations, about lies and secrets and their ultimate consequences. Juliet is soon provided with an alternative identity ‑ Iris Carter-Jenkins is her bogus name ‑ and sent to infiltrate a fascist organisation known as the Right Club. This club holds its meetings in a flat above a cafe in South Kensington called the Russian Tea Rooms, which is run by an Admiral Wolkoff and his daughter Anna. The young transcriber has been upgraded to a full-blown MI5 agent, and adopts a mettlesome personality to go with her new role. “She had already decided that Iris Carter-Jenkins was a gutsy kind of girl.” Gutsy enough to carry a small gun in her handbag, and keep her nerve in the face of imminent unmasking.
There’s a touch of high jinks about Juliet’s anti-Right-Club activities, and indeed about all her doings at this point, not excluding her romantic interest in her mentor Perry Gibbons, whom she fails to suspect of homosexual leanings, even when these are paraded under her nose. She feels at times as if she’s been caught up in “a Girls’ Own adventure” (actually, a Schoolfriend adventure would be nearer the mark; the Girls’ Own Paper was a rather staid publication); and Buchan and Erskine Childers are never far from her thoughts.
I first saw an Akomfrah film before I knew it was an Akomfrah film. I remember watching the documentary Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) in my single dorm room at the top of a hill on McGill’s campus in Montreal. I was alone in college, surrounded by people, and had settled into a life of solemnity. My first laptop had a disc drive, and I had gotten into the habit of borrowing DVDs from the university library in a forlorn attempt to stay in at least one night on the weekends. I, like my father, had gone through a phase contemplating conversion to Islam. Converting from what, I never knew. I didn’t take it as seriously as he did (I never went to mosque), and mostly I just crushed on the hero, who I referred to in the margins of his autobiography as “Mal.” (Unlike my entrepreneurial Jamaican father, I had confused wanting to be a black Muslim with wanting to be a black Marxist.)
Whatever I wanted to be, I could dream up. Whatever I was, I did not know. In Seven Songs for Malcolm X—which features interviews with Betty Shabazz, Spike Lee, Robin D. G. Kelley, and others—the activist Yuri Kochiyama recalls the hours before Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City: “There was something in the air, I wouldn’t know how to pinpoint it, but there seemed to be a lot of anxiety.”
The story of energy metabolism—the basic engine of life at the cellular level—is one of electrons flowing much like water flows from mountains to the sea. Our cells can make use of this flow by regulating how these electrons travel, and by harvesting energy from them as they do so. The whole set-up is really not so unlike a hydroelectric dam. The sea toward which these electrons flow is oxygen, and for most of life on earth, iron is the river. (Octopuses are strange outliers here—they use copper instead of iron, which makes their blood greenish-blue rather than red). Oxygen is hungry for electrons, making it an ideal destination. The proteins that facilitate the delivery contain tiny cores of iron, which manage the handling of the electrons as they are shuttled toward oxygen.
This is why iron and oxygen are both essential for life. There is a dark side to this cellular idyll, though.
Normal energy metabolism in cells produces low levels of toxic byproducts. One of these byproducts is a derivative of oxygen called superoxide. Luckily, cells contain several enzymes that clean up most of this leaked superoxide almost immediately. They do so by converting it into another intermediary called hydrogen peroxide, which you might have in your medicine cabinet for treating nicks and scrapes. The hydrogen peroxide is then detoxified into water and oxygen. Things can go awry if either superoxide or hydrogen peroxide happen to meet some iron on the way to detoxification. What then happens is a set of chemical reactions (described by Haber-Weiss chemistry and Fenton chemistry) that produce a potent and reactive oxygen derivative known as the hydroxyl radical. This radical—also called a free radical—wreaks havoc on biological molecules everywhere. As the chemists Barry Halliwell and John Gutteridge—who wrote the book on iron biochemistry—put it, “the reactivity of the hydroxyl radicals is so great that, if they are formed in living systems, they will react immediately with whatever biological molecule is in their vicinity, producing secondary radicals of variable reactivity.”
Such is the Faustian bargain that has been struck by life on this planet. Oxygen and iron are essential for the production of energy, but may also conspire to destroy the delicate order of our cells. As the neuroscientist J.R. Connor has said, “life was designed to exist at the very interface between iron sufficiency and deficiency.”
In the first issue of The New Atlantis, Leon Kass suggests that if biotechnology were to transform human nature, it would do so to satisfy the human dream of physical and mental perfection — “ageless bodies, happy souls.” But how likely is that? As an indication of what he foresees, Kass says that with drugs, “we can eliminate psychic distress, we can produce states of transient euphoria, and we can engineer more permanent conditions of good cheer, optimism, and contentment.” He refers to those “powerful yet seemingly safe anti-depressant and mood brighteners like Prozac, capable in some people of utterly changing their outlook on life from that of Eeyore to that of Mary Poppins.” Similarly, psychiatrist Peter Kramer — in his best-selling book Listening to Prozac — described patients using Prozac who were not just cured of depression but so transformed in their personalities as to be “better than well.” Shy, quiet people were apparently turned into ebullient and socially engaging people. “Like Garrison Keillor’s marvelous Powdermilk biscuits,” Kramer observed, “Prozac gives these patients the courage to do what needs to be done.” This was the beginning, he concluded, of “cosmetic psychopharmacology,” by which people could use chemicals to take on whatever personality they might prefer.
But as even Kramer has conceded, this chemical transformation in personality appears to work well in only a minority of the people taking Prozac. And in recent years, there have been increasing reports of many harmful side effects. This is to be expected, because like all psychotropic drugs, Prozac disrupts the normal functioning of the brain, and the brain responds by countering the effect of the drug, which then induces harmful distortions in the neural system. Specifically, Prozac blocks the normal removal of the neurotransmitter serotonin from the space between nerve cells. This creates an overabundance of serotonin, and the brain responds either by reducing receptivity to serotonin or by reducing the production of serotonin. As a result, the brain creates an imbalance in response to the disruption of the drug and cannot function normally. There is also growing evidence that Prozac does not really cure depression. Many studies have shown that the antidepressant effects of taking Prozac are not much greater than what occurs when people take a placebo pill.
But the most fundamental problem with Prozac is one that it shares with all psychotropic drugs (including old-fashioned ones like alcohol). Emotional suffering is a capacity of human nature shaped by evolutionary history for an adaptive purpose. Emotional suffering is almost always a signal that something is wrong in our lives. It alerts us that there is some problem either in our internal lives, in our social relationships, or in our external circumstances. A psychotropic drug does not help us to understand or solve the problem. Rather, the drug deadens the emotional response of our brain without changing the problem that provoked the emotional response in the first place. When we feel bad because of a problem in our lives, taking a psychotropic drug to make us feel better is evasive and self-defeating.
Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying TheEconomist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.
The concept of human capital has only been around since the ’50s but it’s become an increasingly popular way of looking at the economic potential of countries. Typically defined as “the attributes of a population that, along with physical capital such as buildings, equipment, and other tangible assets, contribute to economic productivity” it includes things such as education levels, skill sets, and other intangible items that foster economic growth.
While we already know that a countries’ average education level is associated with its economic growth, a recent study looking into the growth of human capital around the world over the last 26 years has included healthcare outcomes to the mix. While it was created to help motivate lower and middle income countries to increase their human capital investment, it offers a harsh look at the progress the United States has made over the previous 20; if any.
A silent divide is weakening America’s national security, and it has nothing to do with President Donald Trump or party polarization. It’s the growing gulf between the tech community in Silicon Valley and the policy-making community in Washington.
Beyond all the acrimonious headlines, Democrats and Republicans share a growing alarm over the return of great-power conflict. China and Russia are challenging American interests, alliances, and values—through territorial aggression; strong-arm tactics and unfair practices in global trade; cyber theft and information warfare; and massive military buildups in new weapons systems such as Russia’s “Satan 2” nuclear long-range missile, China’s autonomous weapons, and satellite-killing capabilities to destroy our communications and imagery systems in space. Since Trump took office, huge bipartisan majorities in Congress have passed tough sanctions against Russia, sweeping reforms to scrutinize and block Chinese investments in sensitive American technology industries, and record defense-budget increases. You know something’s big when senators like the liberal Ron Wyden and the conservative John Cornyn start agreeing.
In Washington, alarm bells are ringing. Here in Silicon Valley, not so much.
Check out these rather ordinary looking portraits. They’re all fake. Not in the sense that they were Photoshopped, but rather they were completely generated by artificial intelligence. That’s right: none of these people actually exist.
It goes without saying — everyone knows it now, even if they can’t say why — that things like social media are bad for us, that many of us are clinically addicted to our phones, that life online brings out the worst in many, and probably in most of us. Twitter has damaged our national discourse, infecting it with a hair-triggered, toxic factionalism. The news is familiar enough — someone says something, Twitter erupts with outrage; details to follow. This is news. We treat all this with a knowing grimace, and write wry little tweets about how Twitter is toxic. We admire the founders of websites and apps that make us miserable, and if we are ambitious entrepreneurial types, aspire to be like them.
Fine, the zeitgeist moves at its glacial pace, until it decides it’s time to move quickly. Humans are weak and will sate their thirst with the nearest liquid, at least for a time. There is reason to think, though, that this digital world will die, or at least radically morph, as its ill effects come further into view. Technology, and especially social media use — this gigantic monument of our collective creation — will begin to be treated as a public health issue within a decade, I predict. The studies are piling up, no moral argument today is so dispositive.
Hypnopaedia aka Sleep Learning had been thrust upon the public in 1921, courtesy of a Science and Invention Magazine cover story. Echoing Poe, Hugo Gernsback informed his readers that sleep “is only another form of death,” but our subconscious “is always on the alert.” If we could “superimpose” learning on our sleeping senses, would it not be “an inestimable boon to humanity?” Would it not “lift the entire human race to a truly unimaginable extent?”
Gernsback proposed that talking machines, operating on the Poulsen Telegraphone Principle (magnetic recordings on steel wires) be installed in people’s bedrooms. The recordings library would be housed in a large central exchange; subscribers could place their orders by radiophone. Then, between midnight and 6 a.m., requestswould be “flashed out,” over those same radiophones, onto reels, each with enough wire to last for an hour of continuous service. Eight reels would give the sleeper enough material for a whole nights’ work!
In other words, in 1921 he anticipated the first spoken word LPs (Caedmon Records, est. 1952), Books of Tape (est. 1975) and the first digitally downloaded audio books (mid-1990s).