Book, Bookstores, Libraries

Bookstores and Books

It’s Personal

Reading the Wall Street Journal article this morning, Bye-Bye Bookstores, I thought of my Kindle. I’m reading Great Expectations on it presently. It’s a stream of words without a body. Books have presence and identity and history like a person. As books lose their personal-ness due to Kindles and Nooks, simultaneously, human beings are losing theirs. Ray Kurtzweil thinks we humans would get along just fine dis-embodied, a personality, history, memories, all downloaded onto a hard drive.  In his digitized universe, we’d be a personality without personhood and human dimensions and bounds and future.

A Kindle Book is like this, all spirit, no embodiment. My Bartlett’s Quotations has an ancient teal-green, canvass-y texture, with a water stain. Red lettering is the text. Curly symbols dress it. It has heft. It takes space. It has been on my shelf for years. It can be a friend. The digital Bartlett’s is not these things. It’s all information, all spirit, no body.

As human face-to-face contact and physically authentic actions and adventures lose sway, so books, bookstores and libraries, the subjects of the WSJ article, tread the same ethereal fate.



I had a conversation with a friend last week. She found surrogacy unobjectionable in the case of a sister offering to carry a baby for her sister. She opposes it for hire. She said she would certainly do it, “I would just be an oven.”

She wouldn’t sell her eggs or advise her daughter to sell hers for even $25,000.00.

Possible rejoinders to those ambivalent toward or supportive of surrogacy:

People are not ovens. Babies are not cakes.

Gestational mothers are now thought to contribute a small amount of genetic endowment.  If this is proven, the baby will feel related to the gestational mother and the mother to the child. They would both have a claim on the other, thus sharing and diluting the links of family tree. Clarity is lost.

The gestational mother could back out, determining to keep the baby. This would open a legal battle and sever family love of friendship. This tenuous relationship could go sour and much later a claim could be made for visitation rights, affectional claims, tearing a child from its routines into a sordid fight, in which he or she was a pawn.

The Wall Street Journal published a large advertising section Feb 6, 2010. It dealt with the gamut of IVF and technological powers of the medical field to intervene in conception and childbearing. Surrogacy advocates claim that with sufficient screening of surrogates, problems never arise. First, test the “never” claim by examining the data. Second, this is no moral justification for the program. Sufficient screening could find people willing to do all manner of dubious things.

Does or should the donor mother get to dictate food, drink, smoking and drugs?

Does the donor mother want to talk to the baby in the womb, to sing, to read to it? The “oven” would have to comply or deny or find an arbitrator to adjudicate.

The sperm portion of that fetus would be from another man, a subtle or not so subtle violation of the woman’s body. Did she “consent” to that implantation in the normal way consent is given and taken? Hardly. It’s hard to beat conjugal sex for clarity on this issue.

The sperm father may assert visitation rights over the “oven”. Fathers like to touch the skin of the mother, feel the kick. A homosexual father could thus intrude into the gestation. How does that settle? He may want to dictate food, drink, choice of music, be around various hours of the day and night.

IVF deprives the child of an origin in a self-abandoning sexual act. He or she arose in a self-conscious, willful manufacturing event.

The child has conflicting allegiances, partly to the donor mother and partly to the gestational mother who suffered nausea, months of discomfort, stretch marks, a weight loss regime after birth, post partum blues, risk and the trauma of delivery. It is not natural to allow these things only to immediately relinquish the subject of so much investment, the baby.

For a child, that’s a serious debt to owe a woman. But you are supposed to feel nothing toward her. If that woman feels nothing toward the child, won’t the child consider that odd and feel rejection, rejection by someone who naturally should feel a bond?

Avatar: Cowboys and Indians

I have seen the movie Avatar. It didn’t take me long to realize this was not a story about bioethics or about biotechnology. It was a morality tale. Evil modernism destroys natural sacredness. The subjugation of native peoples by European invaders. Custer’s last stand.

Indigineous peoples are portrayed as serene, cultured, civilized, loving, and, above all, living in harmony with their earth, Pandora. Corporations and their employees , agents of capitalism and technology, come against them, destroying all that is beautiful. Mining is evil. Profit is evil. Capitalism and technology are evil.

I thought of hard-core environmentalists living in trees to save them from loggers. The Home Tree was a Tree of Life, a sacred center place. (Home, the deepest of longings, is the image used.)  Interconnectedness, a fourth-grade value, is hallowed. Modernity is killing the place; send those evil humans back to their dying planet. Earth is dying because of human nature, greed and consumerism.

I saw a strange likeness between the spelling of the name of the “god” of the Na’vi, Ewah,  and Yaweh of the Hebrews. I didn’t know what to make of this.

I thought of Wordsworth’s poem, Intimations of Immortality, in which he says we come “trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home.” (Lines 59-66 in the linked poem.) When a slain Na’vi, dies, they go back to God. That’s when I thought of Wordsworth.

I heard a phrase from Iraqi war parlance. The corporate raiders were trying to “win hearts and minds”, just as US strategy calls for. This is a subtle dig at the US military.

Director James Cameron

Director James Cameron. Image from wikimedia.

Such irony. Millions of people have seen this mass-produced spectacle. They sit in comforts provided only by large-scale corporate bounty, mass-produced upholstery, natural gas-heated theaters, in clothes produced by global trading, wearing their technological 3D glasses. Cameron spent $300 million producing it, enough to “save” a sizable chunk of the Amazonian rain forest. To add insult to injury, I saw the movie in a theater in Las Vegas, that most contrived of places, as far from encountering sacred nature as one can get.

Ah, but the mythology tugs.

Enough: Book Review


By Bill McKibben

Re-read January 2009

Bill McKibben is my favorite extreme environmentalist author. He does not disrespect people of religious inclination. In fact, at the conclusion of this book, he shows the linkage between them and environmentalists in seeking for meaning beyond technological whiz-bangery.

This book is a compendium of statements, projections and hopes of the techno-futurist researchers such as Kurzweil and Stock. Projections for germline enhancement, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence leave meaning out of the equation, lead to a post-human future, to quote Fukuyama. This prospect leave McKibben cold. He thinks we should stop, not go wherever we are able to go, do anything that is possible.

His arguments stem from the nature of man, the purpose of bodies. These are philosophical and religious matters. Moral justifications given by tech’s enthusiasts boil down to giving people what they want, even if it leaves them and their offspring, if you can still call them that, inhuman. They boiled down to the imperative of evolution. McKibben hopes we are evolved enough to know that the technology cascade is a bad thing.

He believes that the greatest human achievement is striving. But that with germline engineering, everything will be pre-ordained by the engineers of this century. No striving will be authentic. He exults in limits. His opponents chafe, deny limits. He exults in family and community obligations. Hi opponents exult in individual wish-fulfillment.

I like Bill’s style. He turns a phrase. He uses metaphor and simile. He uses scenes. I, too, am concerned that al of our mechanical, electronic, computational and manipulation powers need to be employed within the context of what is valuable, worthwhile. Things that lead to true human flourishing, that fit with what man is here for are allowed. Others are dangerous and wrong. It turns out that the philosophers hold the answers, not the biologists, and electronics engineers.

Exercise or Blame

The Hidden Benefits of Exercise: An Article to Make You Feel Bad

Beach exercise

Beach exercise

The Wall Street Journal published a mean-spirited article this morning. It claims that people who exercise gain hidden benefits. They have fewer symptoms and less-severe illnesses compared to “low-fitness subjects.”

Do they realize how hurtful these statements are? Do they think low-fitness subjects want to be low-fitness?

Studies show that exercise lowers:

  • The risk of stroke 70%
  • The incidence of diabetes 50%
  • The incidence of high blood pressure 40%
  • The risk of breast cancer 50%
  • The risk of colon cancer 50%
  • The risk of developing Alzheimer’s 40%
  • The risk of depression as effectively as Prozac or behavioral therapy.

That’s easy for Laura Landro, the writer, to say.

People who shun exercise are not irresponsible. They are simply not responsible. It is in their genes. They are not disposed to exercise. They do not want to exercise because their genes don’t want them to. Do you, Laura, think they want to be diabetic and depressed, to have strokes, breast and colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease?

Publishing these studies shows an incredible insensitivity. People need help, not blame. A more helpful prescription would be to fund biotech companies to create genetic solutions for the 70% of people who forego exercise not because they dislike it, or because they lack willpower, but because their DNA is handicapped. Fix DNA and people will exercise.

People like Laura Landro and newspapers like the Wall Street Journal should stop blaming the American people for not having strength of will. They are making us feel bad.

Bioethics: Its Many Faces

in vitro fertilization

in vitro fertilization

Bioethics: Some of its many subdivisions:

IVF. In vitro fertilization. Extra embryonic humans; store, destroy, or adopt?

Sexuality’s purpose. Will it be sexual at all when it’s virtual, not bodily? Will virtual sex be other-related, a communion?

PGD. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Picking the best baby. Government health care budget imperatives could force all couples to test and discard undesirables.

DNA testing. Knowing what your likely death date is, what your upcoming medical adventures will be. Medical research.: who controls the data?

Discrimination by DNA. Companies could deny insurance coverage.

Extortion by DNA. A customer, knowing his own DNA story, could defraud an insurance company by buying lots of insurance, and by knowing something the insurance company is forbidden to know, make his survivors a fortune, weakening the company so it cannot serve its other customers.

Surrogate motherhood.

Sperm donation. Choosing the best sperm. Maintaining confidentiality of the donor. Managers slip sperm into the vault, thereby impregnanting customers who thought they were getting random sperm, or carefully cataloged sperm. Children’s right to know their father may supercede donor’s right to anonymity.

Egg markets.

Sperm sorting for sex selection.

Abortion for sex selection.

The right to demand a deaf child.

Organ harvesting. Why not buy and sell organs? Should government assume everyone is a donor unless they’ve opted out?

Genetic engineering, somatic,(for one subject), and germline, (altering the sperm or egg so that valuable traits are passed on to all succeeding generations.)


Chimeras, part human, part animal.

Gene patenting.

Stem cell research, using embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

Creation of embryonic humans for research purposes.

Doping for athletes, scholars, musicians.

Body modification for cosmetic and powers. Sex change operations. Eye rounding. Botox, breast implants, liposuction.

Drugs to treat debilities and confer advantage. Ritalin at MIT.

Machine implants.

Brain uploads, memory downloads, personal history downloads, experience machines.

Human experimentation.



Physician assisted suicide.

End-of-life decisions.


Comments on Ray Kurzweil’s Book: The Singularity Is Near

I read  from the book. I was persuaded by the section documenting ogarithmic growth in technology development, computer speeds, miniaturization, technology ubiquity, price declines for computing capacity. That part is undeniable.

I did notice one prediction that Kurzweil missed. One of his predictions- “We will have the requisite hardware to emulate human intelligence with supercomputers by the end of this decade”- failed . As he was writing in 2005, the end of the decade is upon us today and that particular prediction has not come to pass. It doesn’t even seem close. This calls into question the likelihood of all his other predictions coming to pass on schedule. Granted, even with the schedule set back, many of his predictions could certainly be fulfilled.

One of my objections to his enthusiasm has to do with the role of body in our personhood. Here’s a quote from the book:

In virtual reality, we can be a different person both pysically and emotionally. In fact, other people (such as your romatic partner) will be able to select a different body for you than you might select for yourself, (and vice versa).

Who then are they making love with? Body and emotion, history and memory are tied up in one unique individual.

Kurzweil imagines all our lives wrapped up in only the intelligence aspect. He thinks we can download our knowledge, emotions, personality and memories into the computer and live forever in a constantly evolving, ever happier, ever more stimulated state. My question: Since memories are the basis of personal knowledge, where will new people, intelligences who we bring into being, who exist only in the computer non-biological mode, get any memories, if they’ve never had bodies, never had sensory experiences they can call their own? To me, bodies, sexual reproduction, and biological identity remain absolutes for meaning.

Kurzweil’s teleology leaves me baffled.