Book Review: Amy Ione reviews A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Review of  A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

Reviewed by Amy Ione, posted in Leonardo Reviews, August 2017 

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.

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Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Book Review)

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noë. Reviewed by Amy Ione for Leonardo Reviews.

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
by Alva Noë

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature endeavors to, as Alva Noë the author puts it, introduce art as “its own manner of investigation and its own legitimate source of knowledge” (p. xii) using the enactive approach that he has been working with for a number of years. According to this view, “experience is something we enact or perform; it’s not something that happens in us or to us” (p. 215), “it is something we do, or make, or achieve. And like everything else we achieve, we do so only against the background of our skills, knowledge, situation, and environment, including our social environment” (p. xii). His basic philosophical argument is that we can only understand the human mind in relation to bodily actions given that our experience is situational. Within this he claims that our lives are structured by organization and because art is a practice for bringing our organization into view, it reorganizes us.

When we consider art, Noë tells us, there are two levels we need to keep in mind. On the one hand, the defining feature of what he terms Level-1 activities is that they are basic and involuntary modes of organization. On the other hand, Level-2 activities play with and re-shape level-1 activities. The sum total is that active human experience is neither personal consciousness nor subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. It is not personal because it is interactive and (again) situational activities add meaning to our lives in a way that does not reduce to subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. Since technologies are a part of how we reorganize our lives, and art is an engagement with technologies, art includes a second-level manner of organization/reorganization.

Noë chose to characterize art in terms of strange tools rather than technologies because he sees art as an engagement with the ways our practices, techniques, and technologies organize us; art is not a technological practice so much as a pursuit that presupposes such practices. Essentially, Noë tells us the tools that help us organize our lives are bound up with our habits. Regular tools aid us in performing our normal habits. But, for Noë, artistic goals — confrontation, intervention, and subversion — differ from ordinary ones. Thus, the “strange tools” that artists use aid them in disrupting and reorganizing the norms of communication:

“Art always disrupts business as usual and puts the fact that we find ourselves carrying out business as usual on display. Put bluntly: the value of art does not consist in a (coevolving) fit (or dialogue) between what we make and what we like, but rather in the practice of investigating and questioning and challenging such processes” (p. 238).

The strongest sections of the book are the personal stories. In these narratives Noë eloquently communicates about the many artists he has known over the years. We learn that his parents were artists and that he grew up within the vibrant New York City art community of Greenwich Village in the late twentieth century:

“For me, art … is personal. The question of art, the question of why it matters, what it is, how it figures in our lives, is in some ways my very first problem in philosophy. … I admit that this book’s central claim — that art is a philosophical practice and philosophy an artistic one — serves me rather well. It can be understood, finally, as my defense of philosophy and its value, a defense of my work, in the setting of my family’s engagement with art. If art is the most important thing, and philosophy is art, then it turns out I’m an artist after all. Look, Dad!” (p. 208).

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Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind (Book Review)

Book Review of Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind by Ben Shephard. Reviewed by Amy Ione.

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind
by Ben Shephard

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind traces a slice of history that in turn introduces us to some of those drawn to study human psychology and mental health a few decades after Darwin’s theory of evolution took root. Four of these pioneers are the focus of this book: William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers, and William McDougall. They met at Cambridge in the 1890s and Shephard links their lives more broadly through their efforts to study the brain as biological approaches were gaining increased leverage due to Darwin’s work. The author begins the book by placing us in that context:

“How, then, did the human brain evolve? Why did it evolve as it did? In the 1870s, modern experimental neuroscience began, using electricity to stimulate the nervous system of animals and microscopes to observe the nerve cells of humans. Within two decades, researchers had established the location of functions within the brain, unraveled the way that the nervous system automatically governs the body’s functions, and begun to discover how messages are sent between neurons and synapses. But these extraordinary advances only posed further questions — about human behavior; man’s relations to his fellow primates, and the human occupation of the earth. A generation of scientists went looking for answers” (p. 1).

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After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain (Reviewed by Amy Ione)

After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain (Reviewed by Amy Ione)

After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain
by Michael L. Anderson
Reviewed by Amy IoneDirector, The Diatrope Institute

After Phrenology by Michael L. Anderson is a unique and thought-provoking contribution to the current debate on how cognition interfaces with the environment and how we can move scientific studies of the brain forward. His theory of “neural reuse” is a proposal for how we may re-frame the debate and fills in some of the gaps that exist now when we communicate about the mind, the brain, and the environment. The basic idea is that, rather than seeing localized areas of brain activity as the way to define brain functionality, we should investigate the neural circuitry combinations that are employed to perform complex functions. Included in this notion is recognizing that our ways of doing things are both active and environmentally connected. For Anderson, “the Modern, Modular, cognitivist assumptions that have guided research during most of the last 50 years of cognitive neuroscience have not been borne out by the data this research produced” (p. 301-302) and, thus, this book is a call for a new kind of approach–neural reuse. He additionally offers a theoretical framework that claims to show how this design offers an evolutionarily informed framework, one that has the capacity to both explain brain functions and recognize our embeddedness in our environments. Continue reading “After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain (Reviewed by Amy Ione)”