By James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 19, 2015
When does a newspaper transform from news to wastepaper? How old do the magazines at your dentist office have to be before you sneer at reading them? When does a science book become a history book? Why don’t we have classic nonfiction books like we have classic novels? What’s so important about new information as opposed to old information? If you found a two week old newspaper in your house you’d immediately throw it away, but if you found a 1832 newspaper in your attic you’d treasure it. How many bestselling novels from 1955 are still read today versus the nonfiction bestsellers from that year? When The Bible and The Iliad were written there was no distinction between fiction and nonfiction.
Sometimes it seems the books I enjoy reading the most are novels from the 19th century and the nonfiction books just published that are getting a lot of buzz. The only nonfiction book I can remember reading from the 19th century is Walden; or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau. I’ve always meant to read On the Origins of Species by Charles Darwin.
I started reading Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson, a book I bought new back in 1997, but just now getting around to reading. Dyson is the son of Freeman Dyson, and the author of the more recent book Turing’s Cathedral (2012), which I bought and is also lying around here waiting to be read. I wonder if I’ve waited too long to read Darwin Among the Machines, because I’ve read The Information (2011) by James Gleick and The Innovators (2014) by Walter Isaacson, as well as many other books about artificial intelligence and information theory since 1997. However, Dyson has a unique approach to the history of thinking machines, starting his story with Thomas Hobbes and his book Leviathan. Dyson even ties in H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of book I would write if I had the discipline to write books.
Yet, I wonder about reading such an old book when there are so many newer books waiting to be read. Is there a Read By date for nonfiction books?
Dyson opens with,
“Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal,” wrote Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) on the first page of his Leviathan; or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, published to great disturbance in 1651. “For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in the principall part within; why may we not say that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?”¹ Hobbes believed that the human commonwealth, given substance by the power of its institutions and the ingenuity of its machines, would coalesce to form that Leviathan described in the Old Testament, when the Lord, speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, had warned, “Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.”
Three centuries after Hobbes, automata are multiplying with an agility that no vision formed in the seventeenth century could have foretold. Artificial intelligence flickers on the desktop and artificial life has become a respectable pursuit. But the artificial life and artificial intelligence that so animated Hobbes’s outlook on the world was not the discrete, autonomous mechanical intelligence conceived by the architects of digital processing in the twentieth century. Hobbes’s Leviathan was a diffuse, distributed, artificial organism more characteristic of the technologies and computational architectures approaching with the arrival of the twenty-first.
The trouble is Dyson wrote this sometime before 1997, and artificial intelligence has come a long way since then, beyond what Dyson could imagine eighteen years ago. Yet, what he’s really writing about are the centuries of thought before the 20th century on the subject – and that is mostly new to me. The common starting place seems to be with Babbage and Ada Lovelace, so it’s rather interesting that Dyson starts with Hobbes.
I guess it depends on what I’m enjoying learning. I seem to have two modes of interest. First is, what’s happening right now. The second is, how did we get here. Should I spend my time reading about the current state of global intelligence, or study the history of how someone imagined it would be hundreds of years ago?
I could be reading The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality published 9/1/14 by Luciano Floridi. The Fourth Revolution is a book Hobbes would have found very interesting.
I wish I could read, digest and summarize a book in my blog in three or four hours. It takes me one or two weeks to read a book, and often longer to digest. If I really get caught up into a book I want to follow its leads and tangents. Just reading the first chapter of the Dyson book makes me want to go read about Thomas Hobbes. But do I need to spend so much time thinking about the 17th century when I live in the 21st? Tim Urban claims in “The AI Revolution” that the years 2000-2014 experienced as much progress as all the progress in the 20th century, and that the years 2015-2021 will speed even faster through that same amount of new information.
I am reminded of an old play title – Stop the World I Want To Get Off. Of course, I’m also reminded of that bestseller of the 1970s, Future Shock. Maybe it would easier on my mind to read Thomas Hobbes than Luciano Floridi. Yet, isn’t it sort of sad, that whatever nonfiction book I’ll read will be out-of-date in just a few years. If I had a good memory, I could tally up a very long list of nonfiction books that promoted some kind of far out idea as a possible understanding of how reality works yet has since been forgotten. How many people remember The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris or The Origins of Consciousness if the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes?
Not only do we surf the web, but we surf the current state of knowledge by reading the latest nonfiction books. New information flows into creation far faster than we can gain wisdom from processing that data. Is it practical for me to stop and read a book from 1997? Dyson was working to make sense of 1996.
Quite often new popular science books rephrase the same histories the older books covered. How many popular physics books have I read that summarized Einstein’s discovery of general relativity or Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? Generally my knowledge of science lags far behind it’s discovery. At least I gave up on String Theory before The Big Bang characters did.
I read for fun, so does it matter when a book is published if it’s fun to read? I’m not a scientist, so I don’t need to be up on the latest theories. I can never understand science at anything more than a popular science level, which is essentially at a philosophical level. And at a philosophical level, Darwin Among the Machines is still a fun read.
The problem that continues to nag me is whether or not I’m being the most efficient reader I can be. I only have a few more years left to live, and I want to cram in as much knowledge as possible. I know it leaks out my brain as fast as I consume it, but overall, a little residue remains and it feels like I’m progressing in my understanding of reality.
The decision to read an old nonfiction book versus a new nonfiction book must be made on how much knowledge will it add to my overall collection. That means I must choose between a writer who is carefully digesting a lot of historical information versus a writer who is reporting a lot of new information.