January 11, 6pm–8pm
The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce is a robust and multidimensional reminder of the complexity of human consciousness. Moving from Enlightenment studies of electricity and human anatomy to our 21st century digitally-connected globe, this interdisciplinary study asserts that delusions of electronic persecution have been a preeminent symptom of psychosis for over 200 years. One impressive feature of the study is how deftly Sconce weaves together case studies, literary source material, court cases, and popular media. Through this material he argues that we are moving toward an increasingly psychotic reality in which data practices will produce a world in which thought, reflection, and doubt will be disrupted by the very structures humans are putting in place. In his view, the current melding of big data and political power is creating a situation in which it is becoming more difficult to isolate precisely how (or perhaps where) bodies, the mind, electronics, and information intersect. He draws a parallel between psychotic disembodiment and electronic simulations:
According to Roberto Simanowski, the author of Facebook Society: Losing Ourselves in Sharing Ourselves, this volume isn’t a book about Facebook. Rather his concern is what he calls Facebook society. His starting point is Facebook’s claim that it is building a “global community,” and his underlying assumption is that social-media platforms have altered social interaction, political life, and outlooks on the world, even for people who do not regularly use them. Bringing boundless enthusiasm to how Facebook and other social apps create community, this cultural studies perspective both celebrates networked society and offers a critique of problematic elements derived from digital communities, with a particular focus on our concept of the self.
Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2019
Published: Leonardo Reviews
A Different Kind of Animal is based on two lectures Robert Boyd delivered in 2016 at Princeton University as a part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. In these lectures Boyd introduces his theory that biology and culture are both evolutionary, a topic he’s been working on with Peter Richerson for three decades. Needless to say, this is a broad topic, a point brought home by the four Responses to the lectures also included in the volume. All four commentators endorse the contours of Boyd’s theory and their critiques also raise valid questions: Is Boyd too reductive? Does Boyd’s view of social learning and cooperation rely too much on copying others? Does he adequately define the ways that norms arise and change? Is he ignoring how individuals manipulate norms?
At the beginning of the book Boyd points out that his lectures are about human uniqueness and cumulative cultural adaptation, not the inventive capacities of individuals. He writes:
“We are much better at learning from others than other species are, and equally important, we are motivated to learn from others even when we do not understand why our models are doing what they are doing. This psychology allows human populations to accumulate pools of adaptive information that greatly exceed the inventive capacities of individuals. Cumulative cultural evolution is critical for human adaptation.” (p. 16)
A compendium of 100+ animal names (i.e., nouns) that are also used as verbs in the English language is posted here. The list includes verbal usages that relate directly and indirectly to the noun’s meaning, analogies and unrelated verbal definitions. There are many different animal classes and every animal in the world belongs to one of them.
This list is divided into the five most well known classes of vertebrates (animals with backbones) that are mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians. and is subdivided into common categories of vertebrate animals, together with a category of invertebrates.
Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists
edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman
One of the Times Higher Education’s Best Books of 2015, Future of the Brain offers a compilation of original essays by leading brain researchers. Divided into seven sections, the range and disparities of the authors’ views underscore the dearth of an overarching theory researchers apply to studies in this area. Cross-references among chapters do, however, remind us that science itself succeeds through communication among scientists about what their data says. Also noteworthy is that, even given the spectrum of views, most of the authors share a “we can do this” attitude: They are confident we can and will eventually understand the brain. Suffice it to say, as Gary Marcus, one of the book’s two editors notes: “Neuroscience today is a collection of facts, rather than ideas; what is missing is connective tissue. We know (or think we know) roughly what neurons do, and that they communicate with one another, but not what they are communicating” (p. 205).
The first section, mapping the brain, presents connectome projects. This idea (with computation) is the primary research paradigm presented in the book. Essays by Mike Hawrylycz, Misha Ahrens, Christof Koch, Anthony Zador, and George Church set the stage for this book’s survey of current efforts to understand brain connectivity through mapping and imaging neural activities of mice, strategies for reverse engineering and so forth. Computation, the subject of the second section, includes essays by May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Krishna Shenoy, Olaf Sporns, and Jeremy Freeman. Together the two sections argue that the brain is an organ of computation and scientists need to figure out what the brain is computing. Continue reading “Book Review by Amy Ione: Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists”
Review of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
As a fan of biographies, I was excited to learn about A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. Not only is it a timely biography, this well researched and easy to read book also captures the imagination. Because Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take care to situate Shannon’s contributions in their cultural context the volume encourages the reader to explore their broader implications. Claude Shannon’s legacy is no doubt of particular interest to Leonardo readers due to the range of his work. If Shannon’s training and conception of Information Theory brings the current elevation of STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to mind, many of his lesser known projects clearly align with projects associated with the STE(A)M (the inclusion of Art) community, although the authors never speak of STEAM per se. These include the playful spirit evident in his ongoing tinkering with electronic toys, his multi-faceted studies of juggling, and his unicycle experiments.
So, who was Claude Shannon? Born in 1916 in Michigan, by all accounts Shannon had an ordinary childhood. Noteworthy traits included a love of math and science, a dislike of facts, and mechanical inclinations. These proclivities led him to purse a dual degree in mathematics and engineering at the University of Michigan. After Michigan, Shannon was hired by the well-connected Vannevar Bush, then at MIT and later founder of the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help with his differential analyzer. This was a mechanical analog computer that depended on combinations of equivalent equations, using a wheel-and-disc mechanism for computation. A major problem was that the equations needed to be reconstructed for every problem, in effect annihilating the very efficiency the machine was intending to add to problem solving. The resounding question was how could it reassemble itself on the fly? Shannon, who was conversant with both symbolic logic and electrical circuitry, produced a landmark master’s thesis with an innovative solution. Titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” the young Shannon tied Boolean logic and circuitry together, conceptualizing a path where 1’s and 0’s could represent logical operators of Boole’s (AND, OR, NOT) system, with an on switch standing for “true” and an off switch for “false.”
After a brief stint at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, New Jersey) Shannon joined Bell Labs to work on World War II projects. Here he found an environment that fostered cutting-edge discovery and even met a visiting Alan Turing, another key figure of the Information Age. The sections discussing the shared interests of Shannon and Turing are among the book’s high points, particularly in light of the role of computers in contemporary life. Both probed machine intelligence, feedback and programming commands, and cryptology. The authors tell us that, according to Shannon, much was also left unsaid between them. He did discuss his notions about Information Theory with Turing, but they needed to avoid cryptography because of security concerns.
The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene
by Oswald J. Schmitz
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016
256 pp. Trade, $35
Although global-scale human influence on the environment has been recognized since the 1800s, the term Anthropocene, introduced about a decade or so ago, was only accepted formally as a new geological epoch or era in Earth history in August 2016. Then an official expert group said that humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – should be officially declared. Ironically, this geologic term, frequently associated with ecology in the public’s mind, is generally attributed to Paul J. Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist. Crutzen, who is obviously neither a geologist nor ecologist, explains its beginnings as follows:
“The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.” 
Perhaps it is because Crutzen and Oswald J. Schmitz, the author of The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene, come from different backgrounds that there is a noteworthy difference in how each embraces the term. Schmitz’s emphasis in The New Ecology is on optimism despite what many see as a global environmental crisis. Crutzen, by contrast, sees more reason for concern, claiming that the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica served as defining evidence that human activity has moved us into a new epoch. Indeed one of the defining features of The New Ecology is Schmitz’s assertions that the idea that Earth’s biota is doomed is incorrect: “[t]he New Ecology reveals that species may rapidly evolve and adapt to their changing environmental conditions,” and, perhaps more importantly given the concerns of many today, “[t]his gives hope that the future may not be as dire as it is often portrayed” (p. 104). In other words, while some see a grim picture, Schmitz, a professor of ecology at Yale University, declares, “the realization that evolutionary and ecological processes operate contemporaneously offers some hope that species have the capacity to adapt and thereby sustain ecological functioning” (p. 102). In support of this view Schmitz further argues that new computational tools now allow us to account for feedbacks and nonlinearities. With the ability to understand the dynamics of complex ecological systems, he claims, we are able to use models to predict how feedbacks propagate throughout food webs in response to disturbances, such as harvesting. Researchers can also explore different scenario outcomes.
Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story
by Anat Meidan
Ediciones Polígrafa, 2017
242 pp. Trade, US$ 55; 45.00€
Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Posted on Leonardo Reviews
After the recent election in the United States, I was drawn to the title of Anat Meidan’s exquisite book, Art Nouveau In Buenos Aires: A love story. How I longed for a love story to escape the raucous tone! Meidan’s book seemed like a particularly apt vehicle since Art Nouveau was the first art movement I fell in love with as a young artist. As it turned out, this volume was the perfect salve. The author both conveyed her love for this city and shared the joy she found in exploring it:
A museum curator with a special interest in the Art Nouveau movement, the book succeeds because Meidan’s love story combines a passion for the art with a scholarly perspective. We learn that the project was seeded when she purchased a postcard with images of local Art Nouveau buildings in the city. (An image of the card is among the book’s illustrations.) This postcard led her to become a “collector of buildings” as she turned the city into an open-air museum. The large format of the volume, it measures 10×12 inches, readily conveys the elegance of her “building collection.” Credit is also due to Gustavo Sosa Pinilla, a leading architectural photographer who accompanied her on the expeditions around the city. Indeed, the use of multiple photographs helps her present both the architecture and its details. Her presentation was also helped by the generosity of people she met. She tells us that in many cases her evident interest in a site led to personal tours of private spaces. Looking back, Meidan sums us the project as follows:
Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited
Editors: Catelijne Coopmans, Janet Vertesi, Michael Lynch, and Steve Woolgar
Reviewed by Amy Ione
Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited offers an explicit sequel to the discussion featured in the 1990 book Representation in Scientific Practice . I use the word sequel because this more recent volume is not an update so much as an effort to show that the questions surrounding representation inhabit a quite different theoretical and conceptual landscape 25 years later.
The 1990 book grew out of a workshop on “Visualization and Cognition” held in Paris in 1983 . Although a compilation of already published articles, the book is now remembered as a contribution that helped to coalesce the late 20th century discourse on scientific visualization among historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science on visualization and representation. In some ways it was also representative of how Kuhnian paradigms had changed thinking. Thomas Kuhn introduced paradigmatic thinking in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . His thesis about distinctive ways of thinking in historical eras, in turn, laid the foundation for a focus on scientific context and a more nuanced approach to ideas and practices. With the first Representations volume it was clear that the discussion had shifted accordingly and included enhanced sensitivity to how humanists and social scientists perceived and modeled reality. Within this framework, epistemological thinking and practices were elevated.
The second volume demonstrates that this sea change brought about a focus on ethnographic studies within Science and Technology Studies (STS). The systematic study of scientists working and the environments in which they practice is so predominant in the articles of the second volume that an unacknowledged subtheme of the book is the degree to which practices within environments are now representative of what Kuhn might call a “normal” approach in historical, humanistic, and sociological investigation. Indeed, as author after author explained the design of his or her ethnographic study it is hard to miss how standardized the approach is. No doubt this is why some of the authors ask if the time is ripe for a shift from an epistemological to an ontological treatment of the representations concept.
Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited itself is comprised of 14 lengthy papers primarily by younger scholars and seven brief, reflective pieces by established academics.