A minor but telltale moment of relief from the country’s paralyzing austerity broke through a few months back, when the Obama Administration announced major funding for a new group called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Yes, the group’s acronym is BRAIN.
BRAIN is slated to recruit top neuroscientists and molecular biologists from our premier private foundations, military intelligence agencies, and government bureaucracies. Their mission? To map a circuit of the one hundred billion or so neurons spiking and twirling through the human noggin, yours and mine. Google, Microsoft, and Qualcomm have agreed to consult on the job of capturing and analyzing the resulting data.
Reporting all this landmark innovation, the New York Times grew tongue-tied before the task of solemnizing the corporate-military-government alliance: “It has, as yet, no clearly defined goals or endpoint. Coming up with those goals will be up to the scientists involved and may take more than a year.” Translation: Ka-ching!
Close your eyes and try to conjure a country where art, criticism, and ideas geared for social change enjoyed the same prestige and liquidity as utopian projects such as BRAIN. We wouldn’t need a year to divine our goals from our values—reducing waste and cruelty in society, sharing power democratically in politics, replacing competition with cooperation in economic affairs, sweeping away cant in cultural expression. We might begin by urging the firing of every corporate manager and academic dean. But a fixed “endpoint” we’d be obliged to disavow.
Instead, we might propose a guiding metaphor that couldn’t be of any less interest to our actual tech-savvy resource allocation specialists: “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” That’s how the terminally unfashionable liberal journalist John Stuart Mill sketched the human prospect in his 1859 study On Liberty.
Since then, alas, both liberalism and journalism have been downsized to a mere speck of computer dust. So don’t expect to encounter that particular metaphor again anytime soon.
Meanwhile, you can count on The Baffler no. 23 to assail the computerized dicta and cutting-edge crapola that the country’s most serious persons in academic, business, and government pass off as its most significant thinking. Our world of art and criticism may not boast investment-grade salaries or neuron-spying sinecures. But in catching the carnival of American life in plain sight, we offer a camaraderie of taste, candor, humor, and irony—an asylum, you might say, from digital buncombe. Enjoy!