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Integrating technology with personal narrative in science writing

Posted Dec 28 2010 6:36pm
By
Michael Chorost
on December 28th, 2010
|

Now that I’ve got my website revamped, I thought I’d introduce myself and talk about how I write science.

I got into science writing in an unusual way. I was trained as an academic, completing my Ph.D. in educational technology in 2000. In the summer of 2001 my life came to a halt when I abruptly lost my hearing due to some unknown cause. A few months later I got a cochlear implant in my left ear. When my audiologist first showed me an implant without its ceramic casing I thought, “Oh my God, it really is a computer.” It was a microchip implanted in my skull with 16 electrodes triggering my auditory nerve.

It sounded completely different from anything I’d ever heard before. Radios were gibberish, clocks were eerily loud, toilet flushings were explosions. But I gradually learned how to hear all over again. I wrote my way through the experience, keeping a diary that grew into my first book, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (the softcover has the subtitle My Journey Back to the Hearing World .)

In Rebuilt, I aimed to combine the personal narrative and technical exposition into a coherent argument. In most science books that have a personal angle, the storyline supplements the science without substantially adding to it. It adds human interest or shows the writer’s motivations in pursuing the science. For example, Eric Kandel’s book In Search of Memory has two themes: a memoir of growing up in Nazi-dominated Europe and becoming a scientist, and a detailed explanation of the biochemical basis of memory. Both themes are excellently written, and clearly the idea of memory is explored in both. But each theme could have stood well enough on its own; it’s essentially two interleaved books. (Another example is Ronald Mallett’s Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality .)

In Rebuilt, on the other hand, when I foregrounded my experiences hearing with my cochlear implant, I also explained why I was hearing the way I did in scientific and engineering terms, often within the same paragraph. And when I foregrounded the science, I contextualized it with my urgent need to understand how my new ear worked. For example, reading the underlying C code helped me understand why background sounds abruply went away when I started talking. Knowing that it was a deliberate artifact of the code helped me get used to it.

You might say that just as my body became an integration of hardware and flesh, my writing became an integration of engineering and personal experience.

In my new book, World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet (coming out February 2011), I aimed to pull off the same integration on a higher level. I upped the ante from ear implants, which are about sensation and communication, to brain implants, which are about cognition and control. I traveled the country meeting engineers developing implanted chips that let paralyzed people communicate. I read about the idea of threading thousands of tiny wires into the brain via the bloodstream. I looked in on scientists developing a whole new generation of probes that let them observe and control brain activity in unprecedented detail. (This became a Wired story , which I then developed in more detail as Chapter 8 of the book.)

Obviously I couldn’t write about such technologies from personal experience. But clearly they were extraordinarily intimate interfaces. That was why people reacted so strongly to the very idea of them; they breached the brain itself, directly influencing the seat of personhood, identity, and experience. On that level, memories, perceptions, and emotions all become physical processes, observable and alterable. Consciousness becomes no longer a private thing.

I didn’t claim in the book that such technologies were around the corner for anyone except drastically injured people. But they made it possible to talk concretely about observing consciously experienced events in one brain and using that information to create equivalent conscious experiences in another. They could, in principle, enable ways of knowing what another human being is seeing, feeling, and thinking in a kind of “telempathy.” In short: These new kinds of intimate interfaces raised the possibility of new kinds of intimate relationships.

But what kind of relationships? To explore what they might be, and what they might be like, I wrote about new kinds of relationships I was having. I wrote about brief but intense encounters I had with people at touch-oriented workshops, which on the surface might appear to be about sensuality but were really about connection, self-understanding, and compassion. And I wrote about meeting the woman I ultimately married (which happened just two months ago, on October 10th.) We didn’t connect at first. It took time and patience to discover what we had in common and bond with each other.

I told these stories to show that new kinds of physical proximity enable new kinds of relationships – and brain-based interfaces would be very much a form of physical proximity. I wrote, “Such a linkage would upend the primordial assumption that I am Self, you are Other; that I am In Here, and you are Out There. The challenge to one’s identity would be terrifying but also thrilling, risky but also empowering. Any kind of contact, any penetration, confers new powers and new vulnerabilities. A computer disconnected from the Internet is safe from viruses, but it is also nearly useless. A person not in a relationship is safe from viruses, but is also alone. To obtain the benefits one also has to endure the risks.”

In the end, WORLD WIDE MIND is about creating new ways for human beings to communicate with each other, both with technology and without.

That’s how I’ve aimed to continue my exploration of a kind of science writing in which the technological and the personal are seamlessly bound together. In this blog I hope to offer mini-essays that do the same thing. I am not a scientist, so I am not qualified to use instruments like telescopes or microscopes or optogenetic probes to discover new insights about the nature of reality. But my partly electronic body is a sort of instrument that has helped me develop a unique perspective and way of thinking. I’m looking forward to seeing what new discoveries I can make with it.



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