Blog Post

Eames Elliptical Table

My 7 1/2 foot long Eames Elliptical Table, popularly known as the Surfboard Table, is filling up with ideas, writing, drafts of chapters . . . here's an ongoing syllabus of some of my favorite reading on the fine art of knowing. I tend to redo my Table of Contents at least once a week and then reorganize my writing and reading accordingly. It's quite the fabulous way to think, surfing through everyone else's discipline and avoiding my own (i.e. I'm doing almost no reading in the history or theory of science and technology, preferring to read the science myself rather than read it second hand). And the color-coded thought/rethought schema helps me sort out the process of my accretive, associational, panoptic, and expansive thinking about how we know what we think we know.


Most of what I am reading is awfully technical but lately, for my trip to Madeira, I brought along some books intended for general readers and I thought a syllabus and mini-reviews might be useful. Here are mini-reviews of my three current favorite general audience books in alphabetical order. Jeff Hawkins On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines makes the case for the neocortex being the place where intelligence happens. He calls himself a "neocortex chauvinist." I find this refreshing since scientist after scientist is a "chauvinist," in Hawkins' terms, for either a special part of the brain or a specific function or an evolutionary theory but fails to admit that there is a partisanship motivating the interpretation of the data as well as the design of the experiments that generate the data. In fact, Hawkins (who invented the Palm Pilot and many other devices and who also runs the Redwood Neuroscience Institute dedicated to research on memory and cognition), is rare in telling us what the evidence is, how it was accumulated, what differences of opinion exist about how it should be interpreted, and how he is interpreting it. There is always a gap between data and interpretation and he makes that gap clear. His argument is that our model of AI is based on intelligence as behavior. He argues that intelligence is prediction, our ability to take everything we have ever experienced before and, through complex and simultaneous and redundant operations in the neocortex, can use those to either accept new data as familiar or to process it as new, unfamiliar, unexpected, unpredicted. It's fascinating and he is convinced that this new theory of cognition will lead to a new kind of AI that will be more successful than what we have now, modelled as it is on the behavioral model. Whether AI specialists want to admit it or not, the deep structure of AI is still based on a popular culture notion of anthropomorphic machines (i.e. robots). That is never going to work, and Hawkins said it is because neither the "artificial" nor the "intelligence" in current AI paradigms reflects the most essential aspects of what human intelligence is. Instead, we improve upon a bad model, getting closer but remaining far from anything remotely, on an ontological sense, resembling real intelligence.


As Hawkins says, even with half a century of AI, "no computer can understand language as well as a three year old or see as well as a mouse." He has a new paradigm and he thinks it will work. The book is pretty technical in places, especially when he talks about neural and cortical specialization (I love this stuff but realize it's not everyone's cup of tea) but the whole of the book is great reading, in a snappy breezy style but with big implications, and I recommend it for anyone who wants a paradigm shift, even if one doesn't agree with all the twists and turns Hawkins makes.


Book number two on my reading list is by the eminent psychologist Richard E. Nisbett The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why. I reblogged Nisbett?s recent (and fabulous) op ed piece on race and I.Q. from the New York Times but this book is even more stunning. He and several collaborators in Europe as well as in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and other places did basically the same experiments with the same methods and controls and found out that the earliest knowledge acquisition and language acquisition varies radically from culture to culture. We should know this, of course, but so much of the cant of evolutionary biology is based on universals, erasing cultural transmission as a factor in a way that, to me, seems increasingly irrational, illogical, and, well, unscientific. Such things as the acquisition of nouns (in the West) versus verbs and process words; the tendency (again in the West) to name objects rather than emphasize relationships; the way we categorize the world (background and foreground, primary and secondary, singificant and insignificant, static and interoperabler, etc), the Western structuring of logic around non-contradiction versus the Asian emphasis on contradiction, contingency, and changeability are all tested and analyzed in fascinating ways, often with extremely clever experiments that highlight and dis-aggregate different aspects of a complexly different way of sorting and categorizing the world in different cultures and even in different countries within "Western" or "Asian" culture.


I am especially fascinated by some of the work with monolingual versus compound-bilingual (as in Hong Kong children. This book should be fundamental to anyone interested in learning and, equally, to anyone trying to understand the evolution of the human brain as if that brain isn't a learning organ. Nisbett analyzes an experiment conducted in several countries where mothers were given a new toy to introduce to their preverbal infants. American moms said, "Monkey, look at the cute monkey! Here's the monkey! See the monkey!" whereas the Japanese moms handed the toy to their child and said, "I give this to you. Nice. Now you give it to me. Thank you. Now we can play with it." Nouns v. relationships from the get-go. As Nisbett says wryly that Asian mothers apparently don't consider naming things to be in the job description of motherhood! 


I don't buy all of Nisbett's historical-philosophical explanations about where these differences come from.  If they were there in Aristotle and in the Taoist texts, they were there in the culture, not the other way around.  But I find his account of his experiments fascinating, far more convincing than his historicizing of how we came to be this way, East and West. 


Causality, process, relationship, contingency, contradiction are all there in that simple (and profound) preverbal learning which is, of course, an extremely complex communication of the norms, values, and assumptions of a culture. In a future blog, I may put together Hawkins' insights on prediction with Nisbett's on the social apparatus of thought since prediction's cultural imperatives are hugely important for the future of AI and for the field of cognitive science (whether or not all cognitive scientists recognize that it is).

Finally,Maryanne Wolf?s Proust and the Squid: The History and Science of the Reading Brain, presents a fascinating history of the beginnings of writing and reading systems and speculates on reading today. She is attentive to the dyslexic brain and the ways it learns, not labeling it ?wrong? but as creative in other ways that also have a powerful social roles. She is also attentive to digital thinking, its rapidity and the consequences of that cognitive processing speed. I'm fascinating by her emphasis on how much human life has changed because of reading and writing over the scant space of something like 10,000 years, with special emphasis on alphabetic language (in the West) and its evolution in the past 2000-3000 years. In evolutionary time, that is virtually non-existentg. The "reading brain" is a very, very new phenomenon and, as she underscores, there is no one part of the brain for reading since the human brain (neocortex again) evolved eons before reading/writing existed. Given that, it is fascinating to think about her concerns for the digital, a split second in evolutionary time but our own moment's preoccupation and concern. Is it just too darn fast, this digital world of ours? Or, as some wag once said, is technology simply that which was created after we were born, so it seems fast to us because we don't know how to control it as well as our children do? That is an issue at the heart of my book project, and I'm somehow going back to how we know before I feel I can pronounce on how digitality is changing how we know today.


A note on speed: A game designer once told me that a typical online game takes place at the cognitive equivalent of operating a car at 60 miles per hour whereas reading a book is more like traveling and processing the information speeding by outside one's window at 2 miles per hour.


As a historian of reading, writing, literacy, and technology, I?ve seen the speed argument made before (with mass printing in the 18th century and the sudden appearance of books read repetitively, for fun, not memorized and recited like the Bible or school books). Given that it recurs over and over in the history of technology, I'm skeptical about what the "speed up" means now. On the other hand, I do think a lot about the pace of our reading/writing lives. I'll write more on Wolf's book in another posting, but that reflection on speed is a good note on which to end today?s blog. Back to surfing, Eames-style, elliptically.



Thanks, Mechelle. I love that quote too. And the article you referred me to is excellent. All the best, Cathy


I love that one too!