Blogging vs. Book Writing

>One of the most common questions I get is “how did you write this book?”. (The most common is actually “how did you get it published?”, but more on that later.)

Steven Johnson has a thoughtful post on the writing side, or specifically, how writing a book and writing a blog are different, and why he has kept the two separate.

My own thought is that two of the keys to writing are persistence and discipline – taking the time out of each day to put some more words down. That’s something that authors and bloggers have in common. But in other ways the two are very different. Blogging is instant gratification – people see what you write immediately and you may get feedback immediately. It’s also a short attention span audience – people follow links from one blog to another, or skim a long list of posts in their aggregator. Book writing is the other side of those coins.

For myself, while writing More Than Human it was a bit of a struggle to focus on the longer term writing project with the lure of blogging or perhaps posting to an email list, but in the end it payed off.

Infertile Women Would Use Sex Selection

>Betterhumans quotes a recent survey which shows that 41% of women undergoing infertility treatments would select the sex of their child if possible.

Interestingly enough:

Contradicting fears that such sex selection would cause gender imbalance, the
survey found that women with no children would choose baby girls and boys in
approximately equal numbers.

Furthermore, women with only daughters wanted to
select a male child while women with only sons wanted to select a female child.

>It’s Good to Have Friends

>A gaggle of friends and acquiantances around the web have blogged links to me over the past few days. The only reason the book hit #650 on Amazon in its first few days is the large social network I had who jumped on buying it right away. It’s good to have friends, especially friends as smart and capable as these.

Mike Treder posts about MTH on the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology Blog

Over at Sentient Developments, all around great guy George Dvorsky mentions the book.

And James Hughes, the only ex-budhist monk cum radio host cum transhumanist author I know, blogs me up very nicely at Cyborg Democracy and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies Blog .

BTW, if you haven’t read James’s book Citizen Cyborg, you owe it to yourself to buy a copy. It’s the most sophisticated analysis of the political issues brought up by advances in biotech, nanotech, and AI that I know of.

We’re All Transhumanists

>Thinking about my conversation with Alex Pang about his review of More Than Human in the LA Times.

I still think it’s a fine review, the kind that informs people about the book and calls out an honest limitation- More Than Human isn’t going to convince Leon Kass or anyone who deeply agrees with him to embrace genetic engineering tomorrow.

Where Alex and I disagree is the size of the audience that is persuadable through logical arguments. This is where the title of this post comes from: I tend to take the view that almost everyone is a closet (or at least potential) transhumanist.

That is to say, when presented with a biotech product that will produce a clear improvement in their lives and that 1) is reasonably affordable; 2) has been demonstrated as safe; and 3) doesn’t carry an awful social stigma, I believe the majority of Americans and Europeans would be willing to use the product.

Where “transhumanists” differ is that they’re excited about technologies that aren’t yet affordable or safe, and that have a social stigma – what Kass would call repugnance – around them.

Yet repugnance tends to fall away with time and familiarity. Technologies that are initially threatening simply because they’re new and “gross” have a way of becoming acceptable as people come to understand them and their benefits. This is something I talk about in chapter 7 in the book, using the example of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Eight and a half months later, on July 25, 1978, Lesley Brown gave birth to
a healthy, blue-eyed, blond-haired baby girl. Louise Joy Brown, the
world’s first “test tube baby” was born. Through IVF, science had given us
the ability to create – or at least conceive – life in the laboratory.

The initial public response to IVF wasn’t pretty. Jeremy Rifkin and other
critics of biotechnology (including Leon Kass, now chairman of the President’s
Council on Bio Ethics) criticized the technique. Edwards and Steptoe were
accused of playing God. After their second successful IVF delivery, public
protest forced Steptoe and Edwards to halt their work for two years.

After the initial shock lessened, however, the technique rapidly gained in
popularity. Since 1978, more than a million babies conceived by IVF have
been born. More than 100,000 more are born each year. One out of
every one hundred births in the U.S. is conceived through IVF. In the
United Kingdom, France, and other parts of Europe where the cost of the
procedure is more frequently subsidized, the number is one in every fifty
births. In Australia, one in every twenty births is conceived through IVF.

Of course, Leon Kass is still uncomfortable with IVF. But that hasn’t stopped the procedure from becoming hugely popular. So to come back to Alex’s point (or my previous post), I don’t think I need to convince the hardcore Kassians of anything to have a positive effect. If I can reach the people who are uncomfortable with biotech enhancements simply because they don’t understand them, and educate those people on some of the myths and realities, I think that’s enough to sway public policy.

This line of thinking also contributes to my dislike of the term “transhumanist”. I think it’s a horrible word from a PR standpoint. It adds a taint of weirndess – the very thing that makes people uncomfortable – to technologies that will either not work or will have straightforward benefits.

In my mind, there’s no need for the label at all. The vast majority of things transhumanists want, if they work as advertised, will be desired by millions of mainstream consumers. Transhumanists are just future enthusiasts.

>New Lie Detectors – Same Old Problems?

>David Pescovitz over at BoingBoing blogs about new lie detectors based on facial blood flow.

This is fascinating technology, but I find the claims rather hyped. The scientists interviewed in the NewScientist article say things like:

“You can double your respiration rate or make it zero by holding your
breath. But no one I know of knows how to change the heating of minute areas
of the face by choice.”

and:

“We think these responses are automatic and obligatory,” he says. “And it
happens very early. We think it might, in fact, happen before you’re even aware
of it.”

Of course, galvanic skin resistance changes are automatic, and people previously thought they were obligatory. But they’re consciously changed by anyone who plays Wild Divine.

And few would suspect that people could voluntarily alter brain wave patterns, but it’s being tested to treat fibromyalgia.

I don’t want to be too hard on these technologies, but given the past history of mis-use of polygraphs, I think we need to demand a high level of proof of any new lie detecting technology before we allow it to become a standard for making decisions about people’s lives.

>Making Light of the Bush Bioethics Agenda

>Virginia Postrel blogs that Leon Kass is putting together an aggressive bioethics agenda for Bush’s second term. Just what we need.

Classical Values saves my mood, though, with an elegant post that manages to simultaneously poke holes in Kass’s logic, poke fun at the man himself, and mentions that the methuselah mouse prize has hit the $1 million mark!! (go Aubrey!) and the minor detail that my book has been released as well…

Justin, I hope you enjoy the book. It is indeed optimistic.

>Why I Wrote More Than Human

>I originally posted this as a review on Amazon, but thought it might be interesting here.

Why I Wrote This Book

In 1999, a friend suggested to me that within a few decades we’d have Matrix-esque implants in our brains that would, among other things, allow us to interact in a completely believable virtual reality and beam our thoughts instantly to one another. I pooh-pooh’ed the idea. The brain and body are much too complex to manipulate in that way, or so I thought.

That same year a scientist named Phil Kennedy in Atlanta implanted an electrode into the brain of a paralyzed patient named Johnny Ray – a stroke victim who was completely unable to move, speak, or feed himself. The electrode monitored the activity of just a few neurons inside the patients brain. But through it Johnny was able to learn to control a computer – moving a cursor around on a screen and typing out messages.

Later that year, Joe Tsien at Princeton made the cover of Time Magazine with his Doogie mice – genetically engineered mice that could learn at astounding speeds, up to five times as fast as genetically normal mice.

And that year is also when I learned of the pioneering longevity research of scientists like Tom Johnston at Colorado, who had genetically altered nematode worms to more than double their lifespan and preserve youthful health into old age. Suddenly, it seemed, science was resembling science fiction.

At the same time, there were a number of voices raised in concern over these technologies. What does it mean to extend our lives, boost our mental abilities, or integrate our minds with computers? Would we still be human? What would happen to society? To equality? To the meaning of life?

So I wrote this book to cover these two, interrelated topics:

1)The science of human enhancement – what’s actually happening in the labs and what that could lead to in the near future.

2)The ethics, social consequences, and policy challenges of human enhancement. Basically, what we should or shouldn’t do with this technology.

More Than Human is an optimistic book, but it’s a cautious optimism. Along the way it looks at issues like the effect of longer lives on overpopulation, on socio-economic stratification and whether these technologies would help the rich pull further away from the poor, and at issues like human identity, and whether we could even call ourselves human after changing ourselves in such ways.

It’s not a utopian book. There can be no doubt that using biotechnology to alter the human mind, body, and lifespan will lead to problems. But the conclusion I come to in the book is that these technologies will solve more problems than they create. And that the alternative – to prohibit their use – will create many more problems than it will solve.