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Here Come the Un-machines
2006, Q4 (February 23, 2007)
By Ron Garrison, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

Ron Garrison
Ron Garrison

A Review of Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things, by Robert Frenay

My article this quarter departs temporarily from the usual subjects. Its purpose is to inject a bit of cheer into the holiday season and point to some solid reasons for hope about our common future. At the same time, I'd like to keep that hope firmly grounded in reality by reviewing a book that supports a positive view of recent trends. Surely we've all seen our share of grim and scary predictions about the next few decades, but anyone reading Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things by Robert Frenay is likely to conclude that the future is far from decided.

Frenay's new book involves a wide perspective on human affairs, examining the future direction of our civilization as a whole. He has written a book whose main virtue is its covering of a wide range of subjects, while relating them all to a central idea — essentially, that we have recently undergone a fundamental change in the way all of civilization is developing. The new direction involves a closer relationship between us, our technologies, and the natural world. This shift has only recently started to become evident. In fact, he points to "a brief period of roughly a decade in which a new view of the world has snapped into focus," even dating the start of this new era approximately to 1994, and the founding of the World Wide Web Consortium which, he emphasizes, facilitated the merging of a wide range of disciplines.

Unlike a lot of recent commentators, Frenay does not view the last 500 years or so (starting with what is often called "The Enlightenment") as a mistaken enterprise; he simply says that the world view expressed by Descartes, Newton, and others of their era "got it only half right," although "getting things even half right was a powerful advance." Before now, he says, we simply didn't know enough about the living world, at a deep enough level, to do a decent job of imitating it.

Is this emerging world about making machines that are more like living things, or about developing new relationships with the natural world (what Frenay calls the "new biology")? Actually, it's a lot of both; and if it sometimes seems as though the distinction is not clear, perhaps that is a part of the developing picture. Reading this book creates the distinct impression that the line between the living and the nonliving will be getting less clear all the time. Machines will draw more and more on biology for inspiration — for instance, with jet aircraft that can change their wing shapes dynamically in flight, as birds and insects do, or computer networks that tie together nodes in ways resembling swarms of insects. At the same time, living things will be subject to manipulation in ways that would have to be considered industrial, and directed toward industrial ends (although Frenay says that most present biotechnology is too "machine age" in its approach).

Chapter 1 lays out the historical background, with a lot of historical information about the rise of science and technology as we now know them. Then, Chapter 2 explores recent technological developments in widely varying activities, and this is about as close as the book ever gets to a focus on exciting new inventions. After that, the direction seems to get less clear, although not unfocused enough to keep Chapter 7, "Growing Problems," from being truly scary, with its talk of such things as topsoil loss, loss of genetic diversity, ocean acidification, falling groundwater tables, and soils made saline by irrigation, among other horrors. Chapter 8, "The Even Greener Revolution," follows with a much-needed hopeful counterpoint, describing how the "new biology" can remedy the problems of the old Machine Age.

My impression of the main weakness of Pulse is that it covers enough ground to get a bit unfocused, especially toward the end, and secondly that it occasionally gives the impression that nature is always the model to emulate. This is not always the case. For example, Frenay talks about using living organisms to liberate hydrogen from water for use as an energy source; however, efficiency, strictly in energy terms, is not a strength of photosynthesis. With our artificial, manufactured devices, we already achieve far higher efficiencies than the best reached by living things, for things such as solar electricity. We may be much better off using nature as a source of ideas, but not necessarily mimicking it at every opportunity.

For technical communicators, the implications of all these changes are yet to be determined, but will likely be major. During the predicted transition from the old paradigm to the new, the world can presumably expect even more rapid changes than yet seen. Someone will need to provide guidance as everyone struggles with the new developments. In particular, standardization of products may prove elusive, as predicted decades ago by writers such as Alvin Toffler. There could hardly be a safer prediction than that there will be a lot of technical communicating to do.

At about 455 pages (plus many notes) in the hardbound version, Pulse is not a quick read, and would yield more benefit than most books from repeated readings. But if you have the time, it may be worth some serious attention. If it doesn't put you to sleep in the immediate sense, it may help to gently awaken you to some new concepts in the wider sense.

Ron can be reached at rgarrison1 at nc dot rr dot com. End of article.

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