Science Book a Day Interviews Michael Chorost

michael-chorostSpecial thanks to Michael Chorost for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet

Michael Chorost (pronounced like “chorus” with a T at the end) is a technology theorist with an unusual perspective: his body is the future. In 2001 he went completely deaf and had a computer implanted in his head to let him hear again. This transformative experience inspired his first book, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. He wrote about how mastering his new ear, a cochlear implant, enabled him to enhance his creative potential as a human being. The critics agreed; in 2006 Rebuilt won the PEN/USA Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Shortly afterward it was reprinted in paperback under the new title Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World. – From Michael’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for World Wide Mind?

Two ideas came together in World Wide Mind: simulation and intimacy. Regarding simulation, a few years before World Wide Mind I’d published a book in which I learned you can fool a brain into believing it’s hearing by electrical stimulation alone. (It’s titled Rebuilt, published in 2005.) So I wondered, how much further can technology go? Can you give a brain a simulacrum of what another brain is experiencing? Could that allow for totally new kinds of communication? To my surprise, as I wrote the book, I realized that the answer was yes. Not only that, I could explain the basics of how it could be done.

As for intimacy, the question is whether such technology would be alienating — an issue people worry about all the time. There’s a subplot running through the book about how people can learn to communicate better both with and despite technology. This is partly autobiographical; I felt quite lonely in my early 40s and I wrote about how I overcame that (and got married in the bargain.) Despite its techie title, the book is actually a love story. In fact, I wanted to make the subtitle “A Technological Love Story,” but the publisher nixed it.

#2 – In your book you talk about Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder. Is this a disorder that already exists? How might it come about?

Anytime you see someone texting while driving, you’re seeing acquired attention deficit disorder. Technology gives us such a profusion of information that we all have it now, more or less. In the book I wrote about overcoming it, quite simply by choosing to focus on people and relationships instead of things.

#3 – The idea of technology enhancing human relationship is frightening to some people. Does your book see this is a positive? Or is it more a warning about the future?

Most definitely as a positive. People have always feared that new technologies would harm intimacy and community, starting with Plato, who in 400 BC complained that writing was making people pay less attention to each other. In the book I argue that ultimately technology’s going to colonize the body itself, but that that’ll have the effect of making us more connected to each other, not less. And it’ll be by choice, not by force. It’s sort of the way Facebook makes you more connected to your friends. You can choose what to share, and choose whether to use it at all.

#4 – Published 3 years ago, what has the response to your book been?

It got a nice review in the New York Times, among other publications. Since then, I’ve been astonished to see ideas I wrote about in the book actually happening. For example, I wrote about the idea of creating artificial memories. Two years later, scientists at MIT reported making a synthetic memory in rats using genetic engineering. Things like that give me confidence that I was on the right track, in terms of how the science is developing.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I’m working on a new book about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It may sound like a big departure for me, but again it’s about the issues of communication and understanding.

[Image Credit: Anne Kelley Looney @ ]


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