Obama is about to announce the brain initiative any minute now. I happen to think it is a colossal mistake, but an instructive one. First, it prompts an analysis of Obama: more than his drone war and budget debacles, this brain project is my wake up call that for all his eloquence, he utterly lacks imagination: the only thing he can actually get excited about (like his election campaign) are numbers, measurables and deliverables with no feeling for ideas. Very much a prisoner of the Harvard-MIT best and brightest syndrome.
If you are interested in an extended analysis, read on:
I think of this initiative as the culmination of “iScience,” science as product development, which has a clear recipe:
- Assert a metaphysical goal such as: this project will help us understand consciousness, make us all happier, make our military better and build a 21st century economy.
- Immediately transform that goal with the greatest reductionist efficiency imaginable into a set of modular, measurable goals with clear deliverables.
- Hire a lot of smart people who will do as they are told, pay them a lot of money and give them lot of fancy gadgets to follow the script. Even better if they can keep writing papers about solving the brain.
- Show the world how you are sticking to a Brain 2020 timeline or some such vapid goal and have lots of press conferences where even more fancy gadgets and smart people showcase their latest sci-fi stuff.
- Torture a lot of animals in the name of science.
Now this is a good recipe for building iphones and Boeing 787’s, because that’s how global supply chains are structured now. But I think it is a terrible way to do science or any engagement with ideas and imagination.
The worst part of the brain initiative for me is not that it’s impractical or outlandish but that it is boring, a view of human inquiry that’s reached an imaginative dead end. If the project “works” then we will all be living in the matrix. But I don’t think it will, for the project for all its technical wizardry is not addressing the key questions — it is really about searching for the lost jewels where the light is shining rather than where it they were lost.