09 janeiro 2018


Amphibians are not often considered charismatic. The axolotl is different.

With its ear-to-ear grin, pink feathery headdress of gills and frantic underwater dance, this amphibian has captivated generations of admirers. Once revered by Aztecs, today the axolotl appears in many forms. It is a symbol for Mexican national identity in anthropologist Roger Bartra’s book La Jaula de la Melancolia (The Cage of Melancholy); Mexican muralist Diego Rivera includes axolotl swimming near a male figure’s genitals—the center of creation—in his mural “Water, Origin of Life.”

You may have heard of the axolotl because its image is so ubiquitous—and so, it seems, is it. Millions of the creatures thrive around the world. The axolotl is a popular pet, particularly in Japan, where they are bred so widely that they are also served deep-fried at some restaurants. They are also distributed so commonly to labs for research that they are basically the white mice of amphibians, thanks to their unique genetic profile and their potential to unlock the secrets of evolution and regeneration.

But few realize that, in nature, the axolotl is in peril. It is native only to Lake Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site outside Mexico City, where it has long played a role in Mexican tradition. And there, it is on the brink of extinction.

In 2006, the species was declared critically endangered due to habitat degradation and the pervasiveness of invasive fish in the lake, introduced decades ago in a well-intentioned attempt to create fisheries and alleviate food insecurity. In 2009, experts estimated that the axolotl population had fallen 90 percent in the past four years, a decline further exacerbated by urbanization. In 2015, scientists briefly believed that the critter might have gone fully extinct in the wild—only to find one a few weeks later.

When Luis Zambrano started working with the axolotl in 2002, he knew only a little about the curious critter’s cultural significance to Mexico and their popularity throughout the world. Zambrano, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), had previously focused on food webs of fish; he started working with axolotls when fellow researchers in his lab asked if he would help them find axolotl in his by-catch. He was eventually instrumental in designating the axolotl as a threatened species and is now the leading expert on their conservation.

At first, Zambrano dreaded working the amphibians. Axolotls are frustratingly difficult to catch (besides that, there are very few left) and the local people initially didn’t seem keen to work with him, he says. But as he learned of the animals’ rich cultural and biological significance, he quickly grew entranced by the amphibians. He even found a connection to his prior research: as aquatic predators, axolotls are highly important in food webs. Zambrano started to explore how they interact with different species, how they predate, and how they are preyed upon.
“It was like starting with a bad date and falling in love,” he laughs now.

According to Zambrano, axolotls face a variety of threats in their natural habitat. They are only found in Lake Xochimilco, but Lake Xochimilco is suffering. The lake system is highly eutrophic, meaning it is so rich in nutrients from agricultural runoff that the booming plant life kills the endemic species by depriving them of oxygen. Invasive Asiatic carp and tilapia, introduced by the government to increase food security in underserved communities, have now supplanted the axolotl as the top predators, and are known for picking off the scrumptious juveniles.

Pollution from Mexico City is also an issue: strong storms can cause the city’s sewer system to overflow and release human waste into Lake Xochimilco. With their permeable amphibian skin, axolotls are particularly vulnerable to the ammonia, heavy metals, and other toxins carried by human excrement.

At the same time, Mexico City is rapidly expanding, and outlying areas like Xochilmilco become hotbeds for legal and illegal development. Developers view areas like Xochimilco opportunistically and have been grabbing up permits for large-scale developments in critical areas. As people migrate to Mexico City for work, those who cannot afford to live in the central areas look for places to live on the outskirts. Zambrano has observed that not only is the axolotl stressed by noise, but the rapid urbanization also presents untold threats to its only habitat.
The problem is, having captive populations of axolotls is not enough, says Randal Voss, a biologist at the University of Kentucky. Voss, who maintains a collection of axolotls for distribution to labs around the world as Resource Director of the Ambystoma Genetic Stock Center, knows the problem intimately. When he looks at his pedigree records, he knows the stock is inbred and thus has less genetic diversity due to the mating between related animals.

In one sense, a homogeneous stock can be good for science, as it is much more likely to facilitate reproducible studies. “On the other hand, it can compromise the health of a captive population,” Voss explains.

Captive populations are more vulnerable to catastrophe. Disease, or even an accidental fire, could wipe out an entire lab population almost instantaneously. Between the inbreeding and efforts to cross the axolotl with the tiger salamander to introduce some genetic diversity, the collection is also very different than the wild populations; not only are their genomes different, but they are highly domesticated and adapted to humans.

Researchers like Voss are working on sequencing the wild axolotl genome, but the sheer size of the genome and the lack of access to wild populations means they have not yet completed it. If the animals went extinct before they could complete the sequencing, they would lose the groundwork for many studies that use the axolotl’s unique molecular toolbox.

That’s key, because axolotls are one of the most important animals we have for studying regeneration. When an axolotl loses its limb or crushes its spine, it is able to regenerate the lost or damaged body parts with stunning perfection. Scientists have seen these creatures regenerate an entire limb in as little as 40 days, with immune cells called macrophages building up tissue until a new limb is formed. As scientists are now learning, certain microRNA groups give axolotls and other salamanders this superpower.

They aren’t unique in this trait. “Regeneration is not special or specific to axolotl,” Voss explains, “It’s just that the axolotl is the best model amongst all the salamanders for doing this research.” Moreover, axolotls have enormous embryos, the largest amongst amphibians, which are useful for stem cell research.
Yet perhaps the axolotl’s most crucial trait to scientists goes back to that adorable baby face. 

Few realize that the lovable, cotton-candy-pink amphibian is on the edge of extinction.

1920px-Ambystoma_mexicanum_at_Vancouver_Aquarium.jpg Axolotls are richly represented in captivity. These two, at the Vancouver Aquarium, are leucistic, meaning they have less pigmentation than normal.
Axolotls are neotenic, which means that unlike other amphibians, they reach sexual maturity without undergoing metamorphosis. Frogs, for example, are aged tadpoles; axolotls maintain their youthful, larval visage throughout all stages of their lives. Axolotls evolutionarily shed the thyroid hormone that triggers metamorphosis to adapt to habitats with low levels of iodine and other resources necessary for maturation.

And because axolotls don’t go through metamorphosis, they don’t depend on the seasons and other environmental factors for breeding. That means scientists can breed them throughout the course of the year. Axolotls may also offer insight to the genetic controls that regulate the switch in life for processes like puberty.

With the race against the clock growing ever pressing, the axolotl conservation efforts ramped up in the early 2000s with a proposed captive breeding and species reintroduction project. Richard Griffiths, professor of biological conservation at the University of Kent and leader of the axolotl conservation efforts for the Darwin Initiative, the UK Government’s funding program to assist with biological diversity projects in the developing world, recognized early on that reintroduction was a long shot given the threats to the species in Lake Xochimilco.

“There really wouldn’t be any point to doing captive breeding and reintroduction,” Griffiths explains. “One of the rules of captive breeding is you have to sort the threats out first.”

Thus, the team developed an action plan in 2004 to raise the profile of the axolotl in the local community through education programs, workshops, and public meetings. They focused on integrating the axolotl into the tourism in the community. One of Griffiths’s favorite projects was the training programs for romeros, or boatmen, to become guides for tours about the axolotl for tourists visiting the lake.

“It’s the best captive audience,” Griffiths jokes. “You have eight people in a boat, and they can’t get off!”
Local businesses like La Casita del Axolotl breed axolotls for sale and conduct tours with their guests and clients. “We work with the tourism that we see at the traditional piers,” explains Karen Perez, one of the managers of La Casita del Axolotl. “We give our guests an explanation about axolotls and what they can do for them.”

The local community was always essential for the axolotl conservation efforts. The difficult method of collecting axolotls—searching for subtle bubbles and casting the net just right—that is needed for censuses is hard to teach, but it is a skill that is passed down through generations of local fishermen. 
It wasn’t always smooth sailing in Xochimilco. “When I started to work in Xochimilco, it was not easy,” Zambrano says. Locals distrust scientists, who have historically exploited the community for data in the past without coming back or paying them sufficiently. Zambrano approached the relationship differently. He knew the community had all the knowledge he needed, so he offered his data collecting skills and credibility as a way for them to have their voices heard—and to help their livelihoods.

These efforts have scaled up in recent years as Zambrano involves local farmers in the process. Local farmers are encouraged to farm with traditional chinampas, or “floating gardens” constructed with aquatic vegetation and mud from the lake, to create sanctuaries for the axolotl. The productive and sustainable agricultural system does not use chemical pesticides—they have even experimented with grinding up invasive tilapia for fertilizer—and creates a semi-permeable barrier to provide refuge for the axolotl with clean, filtered water.

“We are not discovering anything new that wasn’t discovered 2,000 years ago,” Zambrano explains.
It may not be enough. “Despite all this work, there is no doubt that the axolotl is in decline within the larger system,” says Griffiths, pointing out that the threats to the lake system are simply too great. Zambrano is hopeful. He has seen a steady increase in interest in the axolotl, which he hopes to leverage into local government action. The first step, he says, is to save Xochimilco.

In Julio Cortázar’s 1952 short story “Axolotl,” the narrator writes that “the axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges,” before turning into one himself. If history doesn’t change, experts warn, real life axolotls may witness is their own demise.

 “I think that we are in a threshold in this moment,” says Zambrano. “But if we follow the path that we have followed for the last 50 years where the government is trying to rescue Xochimilco through more human development, then [the axolotl] will definitely be extinct in the next 10 years.”

Smithsonian Magazine

07 janeiro 2018

The Remarkable Influence of "A Wrinkle in Time"

(My translation for Oficina do Livro)

When Léna Roy was 7 years old, her teacher read the first chapter of A Wrinkle in Time aloud to her second-grade class. After school, Léna ran to her grandmother’s house, which was around the corner from her school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, to finish the book on her own. She curled up in bed and devoured it. She felt just like the hotheaded, stubborn heroine Meg Murry, and took comfort in the fact that a flawed adolescent girl could save the world. “It was almost like your permission to be a real person,” Roy says. “You don’t have to be perfect.”
Millions of other adolescent girls (and boys) have made the same liberating discovery while reading A Wrinkle in Time. What’s different about Roy is that her grandmother happened to be Madeleine L’Engle, the book’s author, who revolutionized serious young adult fiction with her clever mash-up of big ideas, science fantasy and adventure—and a geeky girl action hero way ahead of her time.
Since its 1962 publication, Wrinkle has sold more than ten million copies and been turned into a graphic novel, an opera and two films, including an ambitious adaptation from the director Ava DuVernay due out in March. The book also kicked open the door for other bright young heroines and the amazingly lucrative franchises they appear in, from whip-smart Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books to lethal Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. Leonard Marcus, author of the L’Engle biography Listening for Madeleine, says Wrinkle “set the stage for the reception of Harry Potter in this country.” Previously, he says, science fiction and fantasy were suitable for high-end British authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in Britain but in the States were relegated to pulp magazines and drugstore paperbacks.

Then came L’Engle, a 41-year-old writer who spent three months in 1959 writing the hard-to-categorize story that would become A Wrinkle in Time. While Meg Murry and her companions traveled through time and space to save her father, a scientist trapped by evil forces on a distant planet, readers had to wrap their minds around the fifth dimension, the horrors of conformity and the power of love. L’Engle believed that literature should show youngsters they were capable of taking on the forces of evil in the universe, not just the everyday pains of growing up. “If it’s not good enough for adults,” she once wrote, “it’s not good enough for children.”

Publishers hated it. Every firm her agent turned to rejected the manuscript. One advised to “do a cutting job on it—by half.” Another complained “it’s something between an adult and juvenile novel.” Finally, a friend advised L’Engle to send it to one of the most prestigious houses of all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. John Farrar liked the manuscript. A test reader he gave it to, though, was unimpressed: “I think this is the worst book I have ever read, it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.” Yet FSG acquired it, and Hal Vursell, the book’s editor, talked it up in letters he sent to reviewers: “It’s distinctly odd, extremely well written,” he wrote to one, “and is going to make greater intellectual and emotional demands on 12 to 16 year olds than most formula fiction for this age group.”

When it debuted, not only was Wrinkle widely praised—“wholly absorbing,” said the New York Times Book Review—but it won the Newbery Medal, the most important award in children’s lit. “The almost universal reaction of children to this year’s winning book, by wanting to talk about it to each other and to elders, shows the deep desire to understand as well as to enjoy,” said Newbery committee member Ruth Gagliardo. American publishers, initially resistant to genre bending, soon were producing their own teen epics, including Lloyd Alexander’s Newbery-winning Chronicles of Prydain books and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series.

L’Engle went on to write more than 40 books, including works of nonfiction and poetry, though none was as acclaimed as Wrinkle. None was as controversial, either. Libraries and schools frequently banned the novel because of its entanglements with religion. In one passage, Jesus Christ is compared to Shakespeare, Einstein and the Buddha—a heretical notion to some authorities. On the American Library Association’s list of most “frequently challenged” for the 1990s, Wrinkle was No. 23.

Among the countless girls changed forever by L’Engle’s book was Diane Duane, who first read it as a 10-year-old in 1962. She’d consumed all the science fiction and fantasy at her local library but had never encountered anyone like Meg. “Finally,” Duane recalls, “here was a girl character being treated as if her take on what was going on around her, her analysis and her emotional reactions to the things that were happening around her, were real and were worth paying attention to.” Today Duane is hailed as the best-selling author of So You Want to Be a Wizard and other titles in her Young Wizards fantasy series, which features a young female protagonist, Nita. “All the time L’Engle’s shadow—and a very bright shadow, it has to be said—was lying over that work for me,” she says. “It would have been very difficult for me to do that writing without thinking about her a lot.”

Léna Roy, who is a writing teacher in New York and the co-author of an upcoming biography of her grandmother, Becoming Madeleine, doesn’t remember L’Engle ever calling herself a feminist, though she was proud of being what Roy calls a “trailblazing woman.” L’Engle had spent her years at Smith College editing the campus literary magazine alongside Betty Friedan, who later penned The Feminine Mystique. L’Engle herself suggested it was easy to make her protagonist a strong girl. “I’m a female,” she once said. “Why would I give all the best ideas to a male?”

Now the movie adaptation of Wrinkle is poised to make L’Engle’s creation even more groundbreaking. DuVernay, the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a production budget over $100 million, intentionally cast nonwhite actors in lead roles. (Storm Reid will play Meg, and Deric McCabe will play her younger brother Charles.) In 1962, it was radical to see a young girl in charge. Now a new generation of black girls (and boys) can see themselves onscreen and dream of saving the world.

The Smithsonian Magazine

Pathological consumption, NOT for 2018!

George Monbiot:

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map. 

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations. 

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale(1). Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable). 

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away. 

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production(2). We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers. 

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility(3). Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

In 2007, the journalist Adam Welz records, 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This year, so far, 585 have been shot(4). No one is entirely sure why. But one answer is that very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It’s grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialised nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption. 

This boom has not happened by accident. Our lives have been corralled and shaped in order to encourage it. World trade rules force countries to participate in the festival of junk. Governments cut taxes, deregulate business, manipulate interest rates to stimulate spending. But seldom do the engineers of these policies stop and ask “spending on what?”. When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors. 

Grown men and women devote their lives to manufacturing and marketing this rubbish, and dissing the idea of living without it. “I always knit my gifts”, says a woman in a television ad for an electronics outlet. “Well you shouldn’t,” replies the narrator(5). An advertisement for Google’s latest tablet shows a father and son camping in the woods. Their enjoyment depends on the Nexus 7’s special features(6). The best things in life are free, but we’ve found a way of selling them to you. 

The growth of inequality that has accompanied the consumer boom ensures that the rising economic tide no longer lifts all boats. In the US in 2010 a remarkable 93% of the growth in incomes accrued to the top 1% of the population(7). The old excuse, that we must trash the planet to help the poor, simply does not wash. For a few decades of extra enrichment for those who already possess more money than they know how to spend, the prospects of everyone else who will live on this earth are diminished. 

So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to say these things is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule. Witness last week’s Moral Maze programme, in which most of the panel lined up to decry the idea of consuming less, and to associate it, somehow, with authoritarianism(8). When the world goes mad, those who resist are denounced as lunatics. 

Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.

3. See the film Blood in the Mobile. http://bloodinthemobile.org/
7. Emmanuel Saez, 2nd March 2012. Striking it Richer: the Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2009 and 2010 estimates). http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf

10 dezembro 2017

Translators are people who read books for us.

Gained in Translation - Tim Parks for the NYRB

“But isn’t it all just subjective?”
The scene is a Translation Slam, so-called. Two translators translate the same short passage and discuss their versions with a moderator in front of an audience of other translators. “Slam” suggests violent struggle and eventual victory or defeat. In reality, it’s all very polite and even protective. There will be no vote to decide which version wins. Nobody is going to be humiliated.

All the same, the question of which choice is better comes up again and again. Right now, we’re looking at the difference between “group” and “phalanx” in the phrases “commander of a group of loyal knights” and “commander of a phalanx of faithful men”—both translations of the Italian “comandante a una schiera di fedeli.”

The translator who has used “knights” explains that since the “commander” in question is King Arthur, the “fedeli” or “faithful” whom he commands would surely be the Knights of the Round Table. The translator who has used “phalanx” explains that the Italian word “schiera,” as he sees it, means men arranged in a particular formation or order. And a phalanx would be such a formation.

What about “faithful” and “loyal”? “Faithful” alliterates with “phalanx.” “Loyal” commonly collocates with “knights,” and perhaps borrows a corroborating aura from its assonance with “royal.”

We discuss all this for some time, until someone in the audience objects, “Isn’t it all just subjective?” Meaning, this debate is pointless. De gustibus non est disputandum. Once the literal meaning has been more or less respected, a translation choice, or indeed any literary usage or style, is merely a question of personal taste. You like it or you don’t.
The objection is persuasive, but is it true that aesthetic preferences are “just subjective?” We need to put some pressure on this idea. Does such a description match our experience of books, theater, films, and music? Not all our dealings with books are arbitrary. Young children tend to like a certain kind of story, a certain manner of storytelling, then they “grow out of it.” This or that narrative formula begins to seem too simple, perhaps. Adolescents might enjoy romance or fantasy fiction, then their accumulating experience leads them to look elsewhere. 

Two facts seem obvious here. Any element of choice is limited. The child cannot help first liking such and such a story, then eventually putting it aside. When your mother reads you Where the Wild Things Are, you are immediately hooked. Or not. So it’s true that one simply likes or doesn’t like something. You can’t choose to respond positively to “Earth hath not anything to show more fair” if it doesn’t grab you. And if you like Fifty Shades of Grey, you like it, even though it might be convenient to say you don’t.
But it’s also true that when preferences shift they do so for a reason, if not as a result of reasoning. Growing up, one brings more context and experience, more world, to one’s reading and this “more” changes one’s taste. We might even say this new experience changes the person and with the person the book. At this point, earlier preferences will likely be disparaged, or fondly set aside.

From this observation, it’s a small step to the idea of education and learning. I deliberately, systematically, increase my experience and knowledge in order to have a richer encounter with what I read. The appropriateness of this approach is obvious when, say, reading in a second language: I know enough French to read Bonjour Tristesse, perhaps, but not enough to appreciate Proust. Or when reading things from other times: I pick up The Faerie Queene and am soon aware that the experience would be less frustrating if I knew more about the period and the genre. Our responses and preferences are not arbitrary; they depend on what we bring to what we read or watch.

Does this mean we can say that this preference is better than that? Or that this critical reading is superior to another? Let’s go back to the Translation Slam. The passage we’re looking at is the opening, three short paragraphs, of L’isola di Arturo, by Elsa Morante, which was a major bestseller when it was published in 1957. The first thing that strikes the reader is the way a highly elaborate style, packed with parentheses, subordinates, and rhetorical outbursts, has been placed in the mouth of someone remembering what it was like to be a little boy. Here is an unapologetically literal translation of the first paragraph, to give you an idea:
One of my first boasts had been my name. I had soon learned (it was he, it seems to me, who was first to inform me of it) that Arturo is a star: the fastest and brightest light of the constellation of Boötes, in the northern sky! And that what’s more this name was also borne by a king of ancient times, commander of a band of loyal men: who were all heroes, like their king himself, and by their king treated as equals, like brothers.
As an evocation of childhood, this is hardly Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye. Or even David Copperfield. How to deal with it? One of the translators felt that the challenge of the Slam was to translate the passage in isolation, so he hasn’t, he tells us, looked up the novel or read any further. In the Italian, he finds the style over-elaborate in places; it needs reining in, he feels, because English doesn’t do these things.

The other translator says she initially felt disoriented by this extravagant voice and so found a copy of the novel and read on. What did she find? The narrator tells of his lonely boyhood on the island of Procida off the bay of Naples. His mother died at his birth. His father—who turns out to be the “he” of the second sentence—is mostly absent. Aided by a couple of elderly peasant folk, Arturo grows up in a house mysteriously known as the House of Rascals, in the company of a cheerful dog. The house is full of classical literature, myths and heroes and epic wars, which become the boy’s only education; so he spends his days in a fantasy world imagining grand exploits, beside his dog, in his Mediterranean paradise, yearning for the presence of a father, who, Ulysses-like, is always traveling. Alas, with time Arturo will discover that the reality behind the House of Rascals and his father’s absence is depressingly squalid. The book ends as he abandons his boyhood island for the continent of adulthood.

The elaborate nature of the style aligns with pleasurable illusion, pretensions, posturings, and boyish boasts that are inflated only to be later deflated and disappointed. Looking at the translations, one of the slammers has talked about being “proud of my name”; one has kept the idea of boasting. One has talked about Arturo being “the name of a star”; one has stayed closed to the original and said, “Arthur is a star.” One has simplified and shortened the paragraph; one hasn’t. Perhaps we can’t decide which of these two brief translations is better in absolute terms, as a passage in English, but we might begin to sense which is more in line with the book’s pattern of inflated illusion followed by disillusionment. And if we want to translate a book because we admire the original, perhaps that pattern is worth keeping. Fortunately, to warn us what she has in store, Morante gives us the emotional cadence of her story in miniature right on the first page. Thus the second paragraph, again in merely literal translation, begins:
Unfortunately, I later came to know that this famous Arturo king of Britain was not definite history, just legend; and so I left him aside for other more historical kings (in my opinion legends were childish things).
It is exactly the learning process we mentioned before. Discovery of the problem of historicity has altered Arturo’s appreciation of his name. But no sooner has the Camelot boast been shot down than the boy launches into another self-aggrandizing reflection:
But another reason, all the same, was enough to give, for me, a heraldic importance to the name Arturo: and that is, that to destine me this name (even without knowing, I think, its titled symbols) had been, I discovered, my mother. Who, in herself, was no more than an illiterate girl; but more than a queen, for me.
Of course, the verb “destine” is rarely used, aside from the past participle “destined,” and won’t do in a final translation, but I put it in this literal version to suggest just how much the narrator is puffing things up. One of our two translators felt this long sentence (which, in spite of the period, actually continues in the relative clause “Who, in herself,…”) was really too much; it was overheated, he thought, and manically indirect. In fact, both translators have split it into three, more standard segments. As if to show, though, that the overheating was precisely the point, Morante’s next paragraph again begins with a splash of cold water. Translated literally, we have:
About her, in reality, I have always known little, almost nothing: since she died, at the age of not even eighteen years, in the very moment that I, her first son, was born.
Have we done anything to counter the objection that response to translator choices are “just subjective,” and so beyond discussion? If we turn to the published translation (1959; by Isabel Quigly), we notice that our three paragraphs have been reduced to two; the boy’s disappointment that King Arthur was only legend is now included in the first paragraph, while the second begins with the fact that it was his mother who chose the name. At the same time, the register in this translation shifts radically toward something colloquial and recognizably boyish: “ages ago there was some king called Arthur as well… I thought legends were kid’s stuff… a sort of heraldic ring.”

Here we have neither the rhetorical puffing-up of the boyish boast, nor the paragraph interruption that underlines its deflation. This observation is not subjective, any more than it is subjective to say that “phalanx” is a word generally used in the context of ancient Greece rather than ancient Britain. It’s true, though, that we might find, in spite of these observations, that we prefer Quigly’s version. There is no reasoning that can make us like or dislike something. But with the knowledge we now have of the original, we might also wonder how Quigly’s different, more laconic voice can possibly be made to fit with the story that is going to be told. Just as, once it is pointed out, you might start to feel that Arthur’s knights are not the 300 Spartans.

Translating literature is not always more difficult than translating other texts—tourist brochures, technical manuals, art catalogues, sales contracts, and the like. But it does have this distinguishing characteristic: its sense is not limited to a simple function of informing or persuading, but rather thrives on a superabundance of possible meanings, an openness to interpretation, an invitation to measure what is described against our experience. This is stimulating. The more we bring to it, the more it offers, with the result that later readings will be different from the first in a way that is hardly true of a product description or city guide.  

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

15 setembro 2017

Greek philosopher or ailment? The Art of Wrong Hands

Translating and Being Translated

by Primo Levi. Translated by Harry Thomas, found at Berfrois

Genesis tells us that the first men had only one language: this made them so ambitious and powerful they began building a tower high into the sky. God was offended by their audacity and punished them subtly: not with lightning, but by confounding their language, and so making it impossible for them to go on with their blasphemous work. A not casual parallel to this tale, which comes just before it in the text, is that of original sin and its punishment by expulsion from Eden. One can conclude that from the earliest times linguistic differences were felt as a curse.
And a curse they still are, as anyone knows who has to stay, or worse, to work, in a country in which one doesn’t know the language, or who has had to contend with learning a foreign language as an adult when the mysterious material in which meaning does its work gets more refractory. Besides, on a level more or less conscious, many regard someone who speaks another language as a foreigner by definition, the stranger, the “alien,” the different from me, and the different is a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian: that is, etymologically, a stammerer, one who doesn’t know how to speak, an almost non-human. In this way, linguistic discord tends to become racial and political discord, another of our curses.
It ought to follow that those who exercise the trade of translator or of interpreter should feel honored because they exert themselves to limit the damage of the curse of Babel. But this seldom happens, because translating is difficult, and therefore the result of the translator’s work is often unsatisfactory. A vicious circle is born: the translator is badly paid, and whoever might be or become a good translator seeks a more profitable occupation.
Translating is difficult work because the barriers between languages are larger than we commonly think. Dictionaries, especially pocket dictionaries for tourists, can be useful for basic needs, but they represent a dangerous source of illusions, which can also be said of the those multilingual electronic devices that have been available for some years now. There is seldom a true equivalence between a word in the language one is moving from and the language one is moving to. Their respective meanings may partly overlap, but they rarely coincide, even when the languages are structurally similar and historically related.
The Italian invidia carries a more specialized meaning than the French envie, which also signifies desire, or the Latin invidia, a word that includes hatred, aversion, as witnessed by the Italian adjective inviso. It is possible that this family of words began by expressing ill-seeing, both in the sense of causing damage by watching, that is, by casting a spell, and of feeling uneasiness when watching someone we dislike, someone we “cannot see,” non possiamo vedere, as one says in Italian, but that later this family slid off in a different direction.
There do not seem to be any languages with closely defined word meanings or indeed any with broadly defined word meanings: the whole thing is always a mess. The Italian fregare has at least seven meanings; the English to get is really without meaning; Stuhl in German is chair, but also, by way of a chain of metaphorical associations that are easy to retrieve, excrement. Italian appears to be the only language that distinguishes piume (down) and penne (feathers); French, English, and German do not, and in German Feder refers to at least four different objects: a feather, down, a pen, and any kind of spring.
Other traps for translators are the so-called false friends. For remote historical reasons (which may be interesting to trace, case by case), or deriving from a single misunder-standing, some words in one language can turn up in another with completely different meanings. In German, Stipendium is scholarship, Statist is theater company, Kantine is cafeteria, Kapelle is orchestra, Konkurs is failure, Konzept is draft copy, and Konfetti is confetti.
French macarons are not macaroni but macaroons. In English, aperitif, sensible, ejaculation, apology, compass do not mean, as an Italian might think at first sight, aperitivo, sensibile, eiaculazione, apologia, and compasso. Second mate is the third officer. An engineer is not an ingegnere, but someone who deals with engines, which explains how, in the years after World War II, an aristocratic lady from southern Italy married a train conductor in the United States on the basis of a statement made in good faith but sadly misunderstood.
I am not fortunate enough to know Romanian, a language that linguistic experts love passionately, but I am told that it is full of false friends, and it is a real mine field for translators, if it is true that friptura means a roast, suflet is soul, dezmierda means to stroke, an indispensabili are underpants. Any one of these terms waits in ambush for the careless or inexperienced translator, and it is amusing to think that the trap works both ways: a German risks mistaking a statista, an Italian statesman, for an actor with a small part.
Other traps for the translator are idiomatic expressions, present in every language but specific to each. Some are easy to interpret or else so bizarre as to alert even a neophyte translator. When translating it’s raining cats and dogs into Italian, nobody, I think, would lightheartedly write that piovono cani e gatti instead of piove a dirotto, even though in some other contexts a sentence may get confused with standard speech and so be translated literally, as when, in the rendering of a novel from English, one reads in Italian, with interest, of a respectable dowager who has a skeleton in her cupboard, which is indeed possible, though unusual.
A writer who does not want to embarrass his or her translators should refrain from using idiomatic expressions, but this is hard, because all of us, when we speak and when we write, come up with these turns of phrase without thinking. There is nothing more natural for an Italian than saying siamo a posto (we are fine), fare fiasco (to fail), farsi vivo (to keep in touch), rendere un granchio (to make a mistake), non posso vederlo (I can’t stand him), and hundreds of other similar expressions. Yet they are meaningless to a foreigner, and not all of them are in bilingual dictionaries. Even asking someone’s age is an idiomatic expression: an Englishman or a German asks how you are, which sounds ridiculous to an Italian, especially if the question is addressed to a child.
Other difficulties are generated by the use, in every language, of localisms. Every Italian knows what Juventus is, and every Italian reader of newspapers is aware of what Quirinale, Farnesina, Piazza del Gesu and via delle Botteghe Oscure stand for. But the translator of an Italian text who has not been immersed in our affairs will be puzzled, and no dictionary will help. What will help the translator (if he has it) is his linguistic sensitivity—the translator’s strongest weapon. But this sensitivity cannot be taught in school any more than the ability to write verse or compose music can be taught. Linguistic sensitivity enables the translator to take on the personality of the author, to identify with the author, and alerts him when something in the text doesn’t seem right, doesn’t work, doesn’t read well, doesn’t make sense, or comes across as redundant or inconsistent. When this happens, it may be the author’s fault, but more often than not it is a warning: some of the traps described above are there, invisible but with jaws gaping.
But to be a good translator it is not enough to avoid snares. The task is more demanding: to transfer the expressive energy of the text to another language is super-human work, so much so that some well-known translations (like the translation of the Odyssey into Latin and the Bible into German) have been turning points in the history of our civilization.
However, because a text is generated by a profound interaction between the creative talent of the author and the language he uses, every translation involves inevitable loss, just like when you change currency. This loss may be great or small, depending on the translator’s skills and the nature of the original text. It is usually minimal with technical or scientific texts (but here the translator, in addition to speaking both languages, has to understand what he is translating: in other words, he needs a third expertise), but it is greatest with poetry (what is left of Dante’s e vegno in parte ove non e che luca if it becomes I come to a dark place or, in Italian, vengo in un luogo buio?)
All these “cons” can frighten and dishearten any aspiring translator, but one can throw a few “pros” into the mix. Apart from being civilized peaceful work, translating can bring unique rewards: the translator is the only one to really read the text, to read it in depth, in all its nuances, weighing and appreciating every word and every image, or perhaps detecting voids and untruths. When the translator manages to come up with or even to invent a solution for a crux, he feels godlike, without the responsibility that burdens the author. In this sense, the joys and efforts of translating compared to creative writing are like the joys and efforts of grandparents compared to those of parents.
Many authors, both ancient and modern (Catullus, Foscolo, Baudelaire, Pavese), translated texts that were congenial to them, getting joy out of it for themselves and for their readers, and often achieving the happy state of mind of someone who takes time out to devote himself to a job different from the one he does every day.
It is worth saying a few words about the situation of the author when he is translated. Being translated is neither a weekday nor a holiday job; actually, it is not a job at all, it is a semi-passive state similar to that of a patient on a surgeon’s operating table or on the psychoanalyst’s couch, though it is a state filled with strong and contradictory emotions.
When the author comes across a passage of his work translated into a language he knows, the author feels—one at a time or all at once—flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, flattened, raped, adorned, killed. It is rare that an author remains indifferent toward a translator, however renowned or unknown, who has stuck his nose and fingers into the author’s guts: the author would like to send the translator—one at a time or all at once—the author’s heart (carefully packed), a check, a laurel wreath, or the mafia’s enforcers.

“Tradurre ed essere tradotti” appeared first in Levi’s column in La Stampa, the Turin newspaper, then in the collection of Levi’s articles, L’altrui mestiere (1985).

17 agosto 2017

The Most Iconic Books Set in 150 Countries

Click to access Global English Editing's blog and full explanation on books selected by country.

Eliminating the Human, by David Byrne, with mention to António Damásio

Click to read fully at David Byrne's website.

I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has had an unspoken overarching agenda—it has been about facilitating the need for LESS human interaction. It’s not a bug—it’s a feature. We might think Amazon was about selling us books we couldn’t find locally—and it was and what a brilliant idea—but maybe it was also just as much about eliminating human interaction. I see a pattern emerging in the innovative technology that has gotten the most attention, gets the bucks and often, no surprise, ends up getting developed and implemented. What much of this technology seems to have in common is that it removes the need to deal with humans directly. The tech doesn’t claim or acknowledge this as its primary goal, but it seems to often be the consequence. I’m sort of thinking maybe it is the primary goal. There are so many ways imagination can be manifested in the technical sphere. Many are wonderful and seem like social goods, but allow me a little conspiracy mongering here—an awful lot of them have the consequence of lessening human interaction.
I suspect that we almost don’t notice this pattern because it’s hard to imagine what an alternative focus of tech development might be. Most of the news we get barraged with is about algorithms, AI, robots and self driving cars, all of which fit this pattern, though there are indeed many technological innovations underway that have nothing to do with eliminating human interaction from our lives. CRISPR-cas9 in genetics, new films that can efficiently and cheaply cool houses and quantum computing to name a few, but what we read about most and what touches us daily is the trajectory towards less human involvement. Note: I don’t consider chat rooms and product reviews as “human interaction”; they’re mediated and filtered by a screen.
I am not saying these developments are not efficient and convenient; this is not a judgement regarding the services and technology. I am simply noticing a pattern and wondering if that pattern means there are other possible roads we could be going down, and that the way we’re going is not in fact inevitable, but is (possibly unconsciously) chosen.
Here are some examples of tech that allows for less human interaction:

Online ordering and home delivery- Online ordering is hugely convenient. Amazon, FreshDirect, Instacart, etc. have not just cut out interactions at bookstores and checkout lines, they have eliminated ALL human interaction barring the (often paid) online recommendations. New York has had home take-out delivery for decades—one simply phones the local take-out place—but New York also has never had a shortage of random human interaction.
Here’s an Amazon warehouse in Peterborough, Cambridge. Increasingly the picking is done by a combination of humans working with robots. (...)

Gig Jobs- TaskRabbit and other services—there are people who perform these tasks in the gig economy, but as a client one does not necessarily have to interact with them in a meaningful way.
Airbnb- There is no check-in desk interaction; often there is no human contact at all.
Digital music- Downloads and streaming—there is no physical store, of course, so there are no snobby, know-it-all clerks to deal with. Whew, you might say. There are algorithmic recommendations on some services so you don’t even have to discuss music with your friends to know what they like—the service knows what they like, and you can know too without actually talking to them. Is music as a kind of social glue and lubricant also being eliminated?
Car driver apps- There is minimal interaction—one doesn’t have to tell the driver the address, the preferred route or interact while paying the check.
Driverless cars- In one sense, if you’re out with your friends, not having one of you drive means more time to chat. Or drink. Very nice. But driverless tech is also very much aimed at eliminating taxi drivers, truck drivers, delivery drivers and many others. There are huge advantages to eliminating humans here—theoretically machines should drive more safely than humans—so there might be fewer accidents and fatalities. The disadvantages include massive job loss. But that’s another subject. What I’m seeing here is the consistent “eliminating the human” pattern.
Automated checkout- Eatsa is a new version of the Automat, a once popular “restaurant” with no visible staff. My local CVS has been training their staff to help us learn to use the checkout machines which will replace them. At the same time, they are training their customers to do the work of the cashiers.

Amazon has been testing stores—even grocery stores!—with automated shopping. They’re called Amazon Go. If the items are placed perfectly on the shelves, then sensors know what you’ve picked up, and you can simply walk out with your “purchases” without any human contact. But they still need to get quite a few bugs out.
At some airports, one orders and pays via tablets—that system has some bugs in it too. I watched a lot of people simply walk away in frustration, but those bugs will get sorted someday soon.

Online Art Sales- Art is increasingly being sold online, so one can avoid any possible awkward encounters with intimidating gallery staff.
eBay- “Auctions” without the human drama and excitement.

AI- AI is often (though not always) truly better at decision-making than humans. In some areas, we might expect this. For example, AI will suggest the fastest route on a map accounting for traffic and distance while we as humans wouldn’t have the time to check all that traffic data, and we’d be prone to taking our tried and true route. But some less expected areas where AI is better than humans are opening up. As Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The New Yorker, AI is getting better at spotting melanomas than many doctors. Much routine legal work will soon be done by computer programs and financial assessments are now being done by machines.

Robot workforce- A little distinct from AI, robots are physical machines. Factories increasingly have fewer and fewer workers, which means no personalities to deal with, no workers agitating for overtime, and no illnesses. Using robots avoids an employer’s need to think about worker's comp/liability, healthcare, social security and medicare taxes and unemployment benefits.

Personal assistants- Google Home and Amazon Echo—with improved speech recognition, one can increasingly talk to a machine rather than a person. (There is the attendant question of whether these machines are always listening and possibly recording or at least tabulating one’s speech. Even when not officially addressed, an “offline” discussion might be used to improve a recommendation, for example). Amusing stories abound as the bugs get worked out. The child who says “Alexa, I want a dollhouse”... and lo and behold the parents find one in their cart. When this story became an online viral news item, the news segment replayed the girl’s request, and soon a lot of people with Amazon Echos had dollhouses in their carts.
Data analysis of behavior- Improvements and innovations in crunching massive amounts of data mean that patterns can be recognized where they weren’t seen previously. “Trust the data, not your lying eyes.” We will come to trust the gleanings from data crunching more than we do ourselves and our human colleagues and friends.
Video games (and VR)- Yes, some online games are interactive—but most are played in a room by one person jacked into the game—the interaction is virtual.
Automated high-speed stock buying and selling- A machine crunching huge amounts of data can spot trends and patterns quickly and act on them faster than a person can.

MOOCS- Online education, with no direct teacher interaction.

Lastly, "Social" media- social “interaction” that isn’t really social.
While the appearance on social networks is one of connection—as Facebook and others frequently claim—the fact is a lot of social media is a simulation of real social connection. As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions amongst us by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles. We are fed what we already like or what our similarly inclined friends like… or more likely now what someone has payed for us to see in an ad that mimics content. In this way, we actually become less connected except to those in our group.
Social networks also increase envy and unhappiness. From a recent study:
“The challenge is that most of the work on social interaction has been conducted using ‘real world,’ face-to-face social networks, in contrast to the types of online relationships that are increasingly common.
Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”
While claiming to connect us, the sad and surely unintended effect is that they also drive us apart. This, in my opinion, is partly due to pandering to the pleasure one gets from only hearing things you agree with, but it’s also because the social connection was never real, it was virtual—not between real people but between their online selves.
The counterargument to the dangers of social media has been “look at Arab Spring”. Yes, social media was a much used tool to spread news and to alert, but can social media be credited with facilitating the uprising? The answer is complicated, and there are various points of view.
It seems that an equally important factor in the rise and manifestation was how well-organized the groups were. And we can’t forget that it’s a two way street—social media was also used by the oppressive regimes to tack down and locate the resistance.
“‘High risk’ social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”
Many transformative movements in the past succeed based on leaders, agreed upon principles and organization. Although social media is a great tool for rallying people and bypassing government channels, it does not guarantee eventual success.
Social media is not really social—ticking boxes and having followers and getting feeds is NOT being social—it's a screen simulation of human interaction. Human interaction is much more nuanced and complicated than what happens online. Engineers like things that are quantifiable. Smells, gestures, expression, tone of voice, etc. etc.—in short, all the various ways we communicate are VERY hard to quantify, and those are often how we tell if someone likes us or not.
Why this focus on bypassing humans?
There are lots of reasons one might want to avoid human interaction:
1. Human interaction is perceived as complicated, inefficient, noisy and slow.
2. Less human interaction makes for cheaper manufacturing, services and exchange. It’s good, at least in the short run, for the bosses, owners and investors.
3. We’re told that automation means we won’t have to work at menial tasks any more. We’ll have more leisure time—though how we’ll make a living is a looming question.
4. Engineers and coders as people are often less than comfortable with human interaction, so naturally they are making a world that is more accommodating to themselves.
This last one might be a bit contentious, but hear me out. My theory is that much tech was coded and created by folks somewhere on the spectrum (I should know—I’m different now, but I used to find most social interactions terrifying). Therefore, for those of us who used to or who do find human interactions awkward and uncomfortable, there would naturally be an unconscious drive to make our own lives more comfortable—why wouldn’t we? One way for an engineer to do that would be to remove as much human interaction from their life, and therefore also our lives, as possible. Part of something being “frictionless” is getting the human part out of the way.
Humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. Some claim that the survival of humans depends on us giving some control over to the machines—we seem to be botching the CO2 emission control issue pretty badly, for example. It often seems that our emotional, quick-thinking and selfish nature will be our downfall. There are lots of arguments for getting humans out of the equation, but many might not admit that it is a conscious goal. The stated goal might be finding melanomas or ordering groceries, not eliminating human interaction.
I’m also not saying that any of these apps and tech are not hugely convenient, clever or efficient. I use many of them. But from the automated checkout lines to self-driving cars, I see a trend that is accelerating, and I sense that as it does, human interaction will become rarer and therefore increasingly more difficult for people—not just people on the spectrum, but for all of us.
Is there a downside?
Obviously jobs are a big question mark. When people become superfluous, what do they do for a living? Two MIT faculty members claim that productivity has become “decoupled” from wages and employment. We’re becoming more efficient but don’t need as many people.

My dad was an electrical engineer—I love the engineer's’ way of looking at the world. I myself applied to both art school AND to engineering school (my frustration was that there was little or no cross-pollination. I was told at the time that taking classes in both disciplines would be VERY difficult). I am familiar with and enjoy both the engineer's mindset and the arty mindset (and I’ve heard that now mixing one’s studies is not as hard as it used to be).
The point is not that making a world to accommodate oneself is bad, but that when one has as much power over the rest of the world as the tech sector does, over folks who don’t naturally share its worldview, then there is a risk of a strange imbalance. The tech world is predominantly male—very much so. Testosterone combined with a drive to eliminate as much interaction with real humans as possible—do the math, and there’s the future.
We’ve gotten used to service personnel and staff who have no interest or participation in the businesses where they work. They have no incentive to make the products or the services better. This is a long legacy of the assembly line, standardising, franchising and other practices that increase efficiency and lower costs. It’s a small step then from a worker that doesn’t care to a robot. To consumers, it doesn’t seem like a big loss.
Those who oversee the AI and robots will, not coincidentally, make a lot of money as this trend towards less human interaction continues and accelerates—as many of the products produced above are hugely and addictively convenient. Google, Facebook and other companies are powerful and yes, innovative, but the innovation curiously seems to have had an invisible trajectory. Our imaginations are constrained by who and what we are. We are biased in our drives, which in some ways is good, but maybe some diversity in what influences the world might be reasonable and may be beneficial to all.
To repeat what I wrote above—humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational and biased in what sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. I’d argue that though those might seem like liabilities, many of those attributes actually work in our favor. Many of our emotional responses have evolved over millennia, and they are based on the probability that our responses, often prodded by an emotion, will more likely than not offer the best way to deal with a situation.
Neuroscientist António Damásio wrote about a patient he called Elliot, who had damage to his frontal lobe that made him unemotional. In all other respects he was fine—intelligent, healthy—but emotionally he was Spock. Elliot couldn’t make decisions. He’d waffle endlessly over details. Damásio concluded that though we think decision-making is rational and machinelike, it’s our emotions that enable us to actually decide.
With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the benefit of surprises, happy accidents and unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction, cooperation and collaboration with others multiplies those opportunities.
We’re a social species—we benefit from passing discoveries on, and we benefit from our tendency to cooperate to achieve what we cannot alone. In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari claims this is what allowed us to be so successful. He also claims that this cooperation was often facilitated by a possibility to believe in “fictions” such as nations, money, religions and legal institutions. Machines don’t believe in fictions, or not yet anyway. That’s not to say they won’t surpass us, but if machines are designed to be mainly self-interested, they may hit a roadblock. If less human interaction enables us to forget how to cooperate, then we lose our advantage.
Our random accidents and odd behaviors are fun—they make life enjoyable. I’m wondering what we’re left with when there are fewer and fewer human interactions. Remove humans from the equation and we are less complete as people or as a society. “We” do not exist as isolated individuals—we as individuals are inhabitants of networks, we are relationships. That is how we prosper and thrive.