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Must All Grasshoppers Die?

By - November 28, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot lately – and the topics have been pretty diverse. Popular science fiction from ten years ago (Outerland), political commentary from last month (Future Perfect), seminal computing tracts from the 1990s (Mirror Worlds), and just published manifestos on synthetic biology (Regenesis).

It is a luxury to read this much, even if it’s also not exactly pleasurable (memo to Dr. Church: Most of your readers do not have college degrees in organic chemistry…). But it does change how you think.

Last night I came home early from my writing retreat. I wasn’t happy about doing so, but life sometimes conspires to force you off plan. Yesterday was not a good day – any number of projects in which I’m involved unexpectedly demanded attention, and I failed to say no to their requests. I also contracted a swell case of poison oak. As I completed my tenth conference call – at a writing retreat in which I was supposedly to focus only on writing – I looked up and saw this:

Had I not looked up, I’d have missed it entirely. Five minutes later, it was dark. I packed my bags, locked the door behind me, and drove home.

When I got there, my wife introduced me to a dying grasshopper, a bright green declaration of life poking feebly at an impervious ceramic wall of white. Somehow, it had gotten into our house and ended up in our bathtub. There it lay, slowly tapping out what seemed a last message, scraping its minute grasshopper claw against an unfeeling bed of marble.

I’d like to say that I gently lifted that grasshopper from the tub and lay it on a pillow of leaves. That I googled “how to nurse a grasshopper back to life” and concocted just the right nectar to  revive the tiny beast. But I didn’t. Like most of us would, I looked away. I was sad but I was caught up in my own shit. That grasshopper was running on fumes, it was out of gas. And when a grasshopper runs out of gas, well, that’s it, ain’t it? Perhaps I should have placed it outside, to die in situ. But it was warmer inside…and…well. Make a your sign over it, say a few words after life retreats.

As a culture, two classes of animated beings populate our lives. One are living – people, pets, E Coli, grasshoppers. The other are machines – computers, leaf blowers, automobiles. Each type requires fuel. But only machines can lay dormant for a long period of time between hitting the gas station.  The machines. We envy them, then we remind ourselves that we are alive – we are sentient, living beings. We die, yes, but that’s worth the trade, right?

I wanted nothing more than to pull that dying grasshopper into a QuikStop. Well, no, that’s not true. What I wanted more was to look away, because I knew no such thing exists.

What I’ve noticed, as I’ve been on my journey of reading, is that as a society, we are beginning to have a grand conversation about what it means to rethink the idea of being alive. I’m not just talking about robots that act human, or the synthetic creations of Craig Venter. But really, what does it mean to be animate? Can we separate life from machines? Can we give them life?

To live has been forever defined by the idea of death. A grasshopper that never dies is not alive, is it? It must be, instead, a creation of life, but not living itself. It’s a machine.

These boundaries are going to be pushed in the next 30 years. This is not hype, it’s simply true. We are drawing close to understanding the machinery of life and death. At least, as a culture, we believe we are close. It’s all over the books I’ve been reading.

I wonder, what will come of all of it? Any thoughts?

Meantime, I’m just glad I looked up and saw that sunset before I left yesterday. It reminded me that  there’s still a fair bit of wonder in the world. And that helps put the whole day in perspective.

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4 thoughts on “Must All Grasshoppers Die?

  1. Tim Moynihan says:

    Great post. My fear is that, as we venture into these advanced technologies, we will fail to look at life and intelligence comprehensively and will strip away important, less quantifiable, aspects of nature in our rush to mechanize. Will we, for example, be able to build an artificial intelligence that truly understands how emotionally nuanced human intelligence is or will we sacrifice things like trust, instinct, and intuition for computational efficiency?

    • johnbattelle says:

      I fear the fact that we don’t understand ourselves well enough to create ourselves in our own image. We never will.

  2. John. Awesome post. Touching, deep and meaningful. The pull of the virtual world is strong. Perhaps it’s why I moved to Wyoming this year — one step closer to Earth and a place I can escape and feel Mother Earth’s arms whisk me back to reality.

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