Monday, June 22, 2009

Watching the Watchers

25 years after 1984, Orwell's ghost still haunts us  ...

Way back in 1947, with the scars of World War II surrounding him, George Orwell spent one of the final years of his life laboriously retyping the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the archetypal dystopian fantasy of a world gone wrong. This book was prophetic of so much that it no longer matters if its future is now in our past.

It might have been possible for others to imagine the looming Cold War, but how uncanny was Orwell's vision of a three-way balance of terror maintained between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia? One of the telling moments is during a Hate Week speech when the orator is interrupted by the delivery of a small piece of note paper, after which his speech continues as before, but with the names of friend and foe reversed. Just plug in the names of America, Russia, and China, then contemplate how Richard Nixon's peace overtures  to Chairman Mao may have tilted the balance of power to put more pressure on the Soviet Union.

Or consider how the wacky linguistics of Newspeak, an attempt to make it impossible to formulate a critical thought against the government, was magnificently surpassed by the Nixon White House with its "inoperative statements" (lies) and deleted expletives. Or the Bush White House with its "extraordinary rendition" (kidnapping) and "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture). At least now both of them are unpersons, which has to be doubleplusgood.

Also fascinating is the role played by the media, especially television, in the nightmare world of 1984. At first glance it would seem as if Orwell got it wrong, because Big Brother used video strictly for propaganda and surveillance--the video screen was two-way and the government used it to keep a watchful eye on the citizenry. In reality, Joe McCarthy was able to use TV in the 1950's to further his Communist witch hunt, but we all know the real propaganda was commercial advertisements that sold us the American Dream of consumerism.

Long before 1984, television as an entertainment medium had grown to a scale that dwarfed the ability of governments to put out press releases. And in America at least, with its tradition of a free press, the media seemed to be doing a much better job of keeping an eye on government excesses. Thus Nixon was brought down first by a newspaper, then by televised hearings. And without the TV coverage, would the public really have cared enough to force the President's abdication?

But the implications of long-range and widespread viewing are still playing out. Over the last ten years online video has put the power to broadcast into the hands of anyone with a cell phone or cheap digital camera, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter have provided the means for rapid dissemination of anything that sparks an interest. This past week in Iran these potent new tools were used by an aroused population to bypass the censorship of its government and organize a demonstration just one note shy of open rebellion.

So, does this mean Orwell had it backwards, and that the watchful eyes of the public will be enough to keep our governments in line? As much as I'd like to think so, there are other possibilities to beware of. First of all, social networks are two-edged swords. You can certainly use them for protests and social change, but just by signing up and identifying our friends we have created a perfect database that could be abused in order to shut that protest down. It is far too easy to imagine a national emergency that provoked enough fear that the government could demand access to such information in order to round up "conspirators" and all their associates.

Consider how the Iranians turned those networks into weapons to attack government websites. Any doubt how our own government might react to an attack like that? Under the Patriot Act, which still holds sway over the Land of the Free, all you have to do is raise the specter of terrorism and any defensive measure becomes permissible.

And if you think we are not being watched, think again. Miniaturization and falling costs are making it possible to put cameras anywhere and record anything. Cameras are capturing the license numbers of cars committing traffic violations. Banks, airports, stores, warehouses, workplaces, even public streets are under constant surveillance in the name of public safety. Soon the military will be employing miniature robots the size of flying insects with the ability to see and hear, to literally be a "fly on the wall."

It remains to be seen which way the balance will tip, and if our watching the watchers as they watch us will be enough to keep them under control.

Several film versions of Orwell's 1984 have been made -- most recently in the famous year itself, in the real London, or at least part of it that was scuzzy enough to stand in for the one in the book. John Hurt played Winston Smith, with a benignly malevolent Richard Burton as his government tormentor. Interesting casting. You could easily imagine them with the roles reversed, the way Burton and Peter O'Toole were known to switch parts when they were playing Becket on Broadway. Music was nominally by the Eurythmics, but someone forgot to tell anyone to use their work in the film (except the closing credits), so if you want to hear it you need to get their album of the same name.
My favorite, though, is the 1956 version starring Edmond O'Brien. (It's not on Netflix, but you can buy it from Amazon and other vendors.) The stark noir character of the black-and-white, along with the fevered background of Cold War nuclear hysteria, makes you feel you are really there in that alternate reality. Long Live Big Brother!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

So, Is God a Particle or a Wave?

If the universe is the answer, what is the question?

Photons are tricky little things. You can show that they are particles by catching one, and you can show that they are waves because they have the ability to pass through two slots at the same time. Even weirder, they only do it if we're not watching. (What?) Two of them can even become "entangled" so that across vast distances a change in one of them will be instantly mirrored by the other.

All the other basic constituents of matter and energy are equally strange and unique. But perhaps the weirdest one is the one we haven't found yet. Right now the news is full of reports on the new particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider and how it may be able to discover the ultimate missing link in the form of the mystical (and perhaps imaginary) Higgs boson, which has garnered the unfortunate nickname of "the God particle." Its original namesake, Peter Higgs, is supposedly an atheist who hates the nickname. But even Leon Lederman, who dubbed it that in his book title (The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?), had no intention of ascribing divinity to the particle. He only meant that it would possibly complete our understanding of the universe.

According to what is now called "The Standard Model," the Higgs boson is the only remaining fundamental particle which has not been seen -- by which we mean, caught in the act of nano-second transformation following a spectacular crash of two larger particles. The Higgs was proposed to complete the array of known fundamental particles, because without it there is no way to explain why anything in the universe has mass -- which, if you consider any large object, is obviously a key component of existence. Much as scientists earlier filled in the missing spots in the periodic table of the elements, they are now filling in the gaps in a similar table of subatomic components of those atoms.

The Standard Model really needs this missing particle, because even if it exists the theory still has to jump through hoops to explain things like the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, and the expansion and shape of the universe. If the Higgs boson cannot be found, or if it can be proved NOT to exist, then the Standard Model may be done for, and it will be up to one of the newer competing theories to explain why things are the way they are.

All of which is by way of explanation that the God Particle is not supposed to be God, or even a particle of God, any more or less than the rest of the swarm of particles that form the physical universe. So those who are up in arms about it can just settle down, and Dan Brown can desist from having his Vatican-obsessed characters ascribe nefarious implications to it. All the discovery will do, assuming it happens, is to give us a better handle on reality, which is what science is all about.

The wonderful thing about the universe is the way it continues to exist regardless of how good a handle we may or may not have on it. Objects from atoms to galaxies have a remarkable quality of persistence. They go about their business with delightful disregard for the way we think they ought to behave. You might conclude that it doesn't matter what we think about it. But then why do those pesky photons seem to know when we're watching and change their behavior accordingly?

We have been blessed (or cursed) with this need to know, and an amazing ability to figure things out which has already surpassed the expectations of anyone who lived up till about a century ago. Think we'll never get to the bottom of the Cosmic Riddle? Consider what Charles Darwin had to say, presciently, about the mystery of our own origins:

It has often and confidently been asserted that man's origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
From The Descent of Man

Sunday, June 07, 2009

An Anthem for Anathem

In the age of digital books, this one deserves a hard copy ...

As a long time fan of novelist Neal Stephenson and a new fan of the Long Now Foundation, when I heard that the latest novel of the former was inspired by the 10,000 Year Clock project of the latter, I hurried to order a copy. And while it might seem that science fiction -- or speculative fiction, to use a newer term -- would be perfect to read in digital form, something compelled me to acquire Anathem not only printed on paper but hard bound as well.

Of course, this would not suit the denizens of the novel itself. To the "avout" who live in the hermetic society of the "math," mechanically printed books are too transient to be considered of value. All of their books are copied by hand onto leaves grown in orchards of "page trees," genetically engineered to produce a ready made paper with great longevity. Unstated is the corollary that only books considered important enough to warrant the effort will be copied by hand, which effectively culls the libraries of chaff and leaves only those works of enduring value.

[A similar idea appears in Robert Graves' utopian novel, Watch the North Wind Rise, in which poems are written in chalk and only when they have survived long enough are finally engraved in gold to be kept for all time. Not sure if this is a writer's dream or nightmare.]
Anathem is one of those books that comes with a glossary for the various unfamiliar terms of its internal language, though many of them become apparent from their usage. The most important concepts are also introduced by extracts from the Dictionary that appear as chapter preambles. Some of the words are English, but with modified meanings. A "math," for example, is a place where a certain mental discipline is followed. Other terms have been invented to fit the needs of the narrative. "Avout" is used the way we use "devout" when we say "one of the devout," except that the avout scrupulously avoid the concept of divinity in their pursuit of pure logic and knowledge. Thus the prefix "a-" to mean without belief. Those who do believe in God are called "deolaters" (not idolaters, which would imply false gods) and are found only in the world outside the maths.

One thing that becomes plain late in the story and which you might as well know at the beginning (because Stephenson tells us in his foreward), is that the planet called Arbre is not Earth. Letting go of this at the outset helps to explain how Arbre can have such a long history without any of it sounding familiar -- though there are, intentionally, many parallels to human history, especially the history of religion, philosophy, and science.

Beyond that, the less you know going in, the more you will enjoy the unfolding of this tale as it grows in scale and complexity. At first a sense of timelessness is created as we are introduced to a social order that thinks in terms of centuries and millenia, isolated by physical walls and social conventions from the surrounding civilization. But soon one of the characters expresses a wish that someday something would ... happen. And of course it does, as it must in any good novel. In a very satisfying way, something momentous works its way up from the depths until it bursts to the surface like a whale, shattering the quiet lives of the contemplatives and threatening global survival.

Should we compare it to Moby Dick? Probably not, but the quest for the explanation and resolution is as compelling as Ahab's obsession. And Anathem is a rare thing in contemporary literature of any kind: a novel of ideas. Though it owes something to Umberto Ecco's The Name of the Rose in its depiction of a monastic life, it also invites comparison to The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann or The Glass Bead Game of Herman Hesse. Where else would we find the characters (and the author) indulging in lengthy Socratic dialogs about logic and a priori truth? This is not your father's sci fi.

There is such a wealth of this type of material that several sections have been stripped out (perhaps at the suggestion of an editor) and appear in the back of the book as "Calcas," or logical exercises. The cuts were made judiciously, because while they are interesting reading by themselves they are not as relevant to the plot as the ones that remain in the body of the novel.

But by all means, don't let this imposing array of features deter you from reading. Anathem is a ripping good yarn that even manages to encompass a love story. And it is one of the most richly depicted worlds in all of literature. Dive in and feast.

Monday, June 01, 2009

God on the Brain

So who created whom?

Recently several scientific articles have been published that describe how a belief in God and the idea of Creation may be "wired" into our brains, and that these beliefs may have evolved in us because they were beneficial to our survival.

Oddly enough, the first conclusion that comes to mind is that this means God is just a figment of our imaginations. But this is just another example of how our minds work. Belief in something is no proof it is false any more than it proves it is true; it is simply belief. Our beliefs may be based on observation, logical deduction, and reasoning, or they may be based on faith, superstition, or whatever innate sense we have of right and wrong. Belief can even be purely pragmatic, leading us to believe whatever seems to work at the moment, even if it is contradictory. Thus I might be an ardent supporter of the right to privacy, but still be in favor of wiretapping when it makes me feel safer. (It doesn't, by the way.)

As to the survival value of religious systems, you could certainly argue both ways. It might be the case that believing in something larger than ourselves can induce us to sacrifice our individual survival for that of the whole species. On the other hand, look how quickly Christianity evolved from a doctrine of love and charity to the bloodbath of the Crusades and the horrors of the Inquisition. Wouldn't we have done better to avoid those chapters of our history? Of course, some would argue that is what happens when we turn religious faith into religious organizations or institutions, which behave more the way states and politicians behave than like the figures such as Jesus and Buddha who inspired them.

And when it comes to personal sacrifice, consider the case of the house cat I saw on the news who repeatedly entered a burning house to pull out her kittens one by one. The poor feline had her ears burned, her eyes blistered shut, and the fur singed from her face, yet she saved their lives. It would seem that we could achieve as much for our collective survival just by emulating this cat, tapping into this same deeply seated instinct in our own animal brains, without having to resort to a belief in anything supernatural.

I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more of an outcry against this new research by the proponents of Intelligent Design. You might expect it to start another round in the battle of the Jesus-fish emblems seen on the backs of cars. You know the ones. The first fish contains the letters "Jesus." The second fish, with legs, contains "Darwin." The third fish is a pair of them -- a smaller Darwin fish being eaten by a larger one labeled "TRUTH." And now we seem to have the potential for an Evolution fish big enough to swallow a God fish.

But I think a better parable would be the one about Li Po, the ancient Chinese poet who, on waking up, could not decide if he had been dreaming he was a butterfly, of if he were now a butterfly dreaming he was Li Po. If God did not exist, would we create one? If God created us, would we believe it? If we didn't believe it would it still be true? If we were God, and forgot how we had created ourselves, could we find out?