George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

Long ago, in the ancient bosom of the human-animal stirred a quickening of thought and tenderness at the sheer beauty of the world — a yearning to fathom the forces and phenomena behind the enchantments of birdsong and bloom, the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the cottony euphoria of clouds, the swirling patterns of the stars. When we made language to tell each other of the wonder of the world, we called that quickening science.

Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines

But our love of beauty grew edged with a lust for power that sent our science on what Bertrand Russell perceptively rued as its “passage from contemplation to manipulation.” The road forked between knowledge as a technology of control and knowledge as a technology of acceptance, of cherishing and understanding the reality on its terms and decoding those terms so that they can be met rather than manipulated.

We went on making equations and theories and bombs to control life; we went on making poems and paintings and songs in an attempt to live with the fact that we cannot. Suspended between these poles of sensemaking, we built machines as sculptures of the possible and fed them our wishes encoded in commands, each algorithm ending in a narrowing of possibility between binary choices, having begun as a hopeful verse in the poetry of prospection.

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Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Every writer, if they are lucky enough and passionate enough and dispassionate enough, reads a handful of books they wish they had written in the course of their lifetime. For me, Analogia (public library) by George Dyson is one such book — a book that traverses vast territories of fact and feeling to arrive at a cape of meaning from which one can view with sudden and staggering clarity the past, the present, and the future all at once — not with fear, not with hope, but with something beyond binaries: with a quickening of wonderment and understanding.

Dyson is a peculiar person to tell the history and map the future of our relationship with technology. Odd and perfect: The son of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and the philosophically inclined physicist Freeman Dyson, and brother to technology investor and journalist Esther Dyson, George rebelled by branching from the family tree of science and technology at age sixteen to live, as he recounts, “in a treehouse ninety-five feet up in a Douglas fir above Burrard Inlet in British Columbia, on land that its rightful owners, the Tsleil-Waututh, had never ceded.”

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Art from The Tree House by Dutch father-daughter duo Ronald Tolman and Marije Tolman, 2009

In this treehouse he built with his own hands, Dyson shared the harsh winters — when a cup of tea poured from his perch would freeze before touching the ground — with a colony of cormorants roosting in the subsequent crown fir. There, he watched a panoply of seabirds disappear underwater, diving after silver swirls of fish he could see in the clear ocean up from the tree. He learned to use, and to this day uses, his hands to build kayaks and canoes with the traditional materials and native techniques perfected over millennia. With those selfsame hands, he types these far-seeing thoughts.

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