I’ve never been one for delving into science past my education, and an occasional interest when something significant comes along, or when the sysadmin throws me an interesting news link at PhysOrg (which he makes a habit of doing almost every working day). But when my editor linked me to an article on The New York Times website – namely, a review of a book called World Wide Mind, I was intrigued. More so after reading an excerpt involving something that wouldn’t look out of place in Minority Report, but which suggested radical possibilities for humanity’s technologically-dependent future.
These speculations were the work of Michael Chorost, who I went to hunt down. Even now, praise for the book still rolls in. Some call him a visionary. Some still call him by the name he gave himself – a cyborg, in reference to the merging of the Man (Chorost) and the Machine (his cochlear implant). Personally, I called him Mike, and as we sat down to chat on Skype, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the scientists whose inventions had allowed me to verbally communicate with someone who was born deaf.
I have a huge pile of questions to ask him, so I start with asking him about his views on social networking, about whether or not he thinks we’re communicating more effectively now because of it. “I wonder,” he responds, “if words like ‘more’ effectively and ‘less’ effectively, are really that illuminating, because it’s clear that Facebook and Twitter are facilitating different kinds of conversation, and different kinds of communication. And some people are concerned that they’re actually deteriorating the quality of interpersonal communication.”
I can’t help but agree – it’s difficult to compare, say, a 140-character micro-blog-post to a lifestyle column documenting someone’s weekend back in the Fifties. The increased instantaneousness of communication is, I suggest, a sign that we’re evolving towards direct data input into the brain, much like the cochlear implant that has allowed him to hear again. But does he think this is something that will actually happen?
“I do write about technology that is now being developed, that will allow its users to observe neural activity, on a very intimate level.” He continues, but stops himself to clarify that his book is a thought experiment, and not a prediction of what may or may not happen in the next few years. “I’m pointing out that the history of evolution shows that civilisations and species often get more complex over time, and one way in which the human race could follow that evolution in turn, would be to merge physically with the internet it has created. That’s one possible route that evolution could take.”
I do wonder about his rather guarded approach to suggesting what could be possible in the future. Predictions, when made by an influential scientific mind like that of Chorost, can sometimes be taken extremely seriously, and it’s probably more appropriate to think about the possible rather than the probable. It certainly makes for more interesting reading, that’s for sure.
“What I’m trying to do,” he explains, “is, really, to create a new kind of conversation, where we talk about what it means to communicate with the great intimacy that technology can allow, and what good it can do us.” I nod, and bring up the Blackberry phone plugin that would read the BPM of the user, showcasing your heart-rate as a futuristic version of a status update. But is this crossing the line?
“We actually have those problems now. Technology has collapsed the distinction between work life and personal life.” He points out that the eroding of the two distinct spheres of the Personal and the Office has contributed, to some degree, to a loss of privacy. Listening to him again now, I’m strongly reminded of those who have suffered due to social updates that criticise companies or potential employers. He states that his book, World Wide Mind offers a metaphor for this problem. “We already have issues with privacy. What would happen if we envisioned the most radical invasions possible, and what can we learn from doing that?”
World Wide Mind contends that, although we risk a further loss of privacy, we may in fact be improving communication as a result. I agree vocally, and breach the subject that’s been on my mind the most – whether or not his cochlear implant has changed his view of technology as a whole.
“It really has, because when a surgeon operates on you to put a computer in your head, and you have to spend the next year learning to understand what it’s giving you, it certainly does make you think about technology differently. I’m very aware that I’ve got several hundred thousand transistors in my skull. I’ve had it for ten years, and it still blows my mind.”
I’m glad he thinks so, because it certainly blew mine.