Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World
||Author: Stefan Helmreich|
List Price: $18.95
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Publisher: University of California Press (June, 2000)
Sales Rank: 323,707
Average Customer Rating: 2.6 out of 5
Customer ReviewsRating: 1 out of 5
Inside Stefan's head
The cover blurb says "Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich's look at the social and simulated worlds of Artificial Life" and it turns out to be horribly true. I hoped to learn how the programmers viewed their simulated worlds, and how that relates to their culture. Instead I found how Stefan looks at the programmers, and what he thinks of science. The background description of individuals and institutions isn't bad. The rest is.
Camille Paglia is not usually classified as an anthropologist, but this book reminded me of her - if she couldn't write well and ignored the culture she wrote about. This book has little bearing on its purported subject, and the author's personal views of science aren't interesting (largely because he's speaking on a subject he clearly doesn't understand). If you want Camille Paglia, read Camille Paglia. If you want an actual anthroplogical study of science or A-life, don't waste your time here.
Rating: 2 out of 5
An entertaining disappointment
Stefan Helmreich presents an entertaining glimpse into the culture, the lives, and the musings of many of the leading voices in the field of artificial life. One of the real strengths of this book is his ability to offer a perspective from 'inside' the discipline--a view not only of the history and present status and future direction of the field of artificial life, but of the scientists and researchers responsible. That, plus his personal fascination with the subject matter and his obvious writing skills, strike you within the first few pages. This was at times a literate and enjoyable read.
Unfortunately, it was also frustrating and, ultimately, disappointing. Frustrating because it is patently obvious that the author approached his subject matter with his ethnographic conclusions firmly in place prior to ever examining the evidence. There is no other way one can explain the lengths he goes to convince the reader that white, heterosexual, male-dominated mythologies lurk under every bush he came across in Santa Fe. As such, truly interesting questions he raises--such as the religious aspect of silicon-based creation--are either left unread by the reader long since turned off by his biased approach, or else unfairly dismissed as equally prejudiced.
And disappointing, because in the long run most of his efforts are either irrelevant, or trivial. Computational studies in evolution are at bottom a matter of binary code. Zero's and one's. They are neither black nor white, Baptist or Buddhist, straight or gay, male or female. Now, clearly the researcher at their computer may indeed be any of the above--but that does not change the code itself. So in this sense Helmreich's observations are irrelevant. On the other hand, no one would argue the fact that personal bias may well contaminate interpretations of computational results. Personal bias may well contaminate almost everything we say and do, to one degree or another. But that is a rather trivial observation to make--one that has everything to do with human beings, and next to nothing to do with the science of computational evolution, which is what I had assumed from the title "Silicon Second Nature" that this book was about.
Rating: 1 out of 5
The best I can say about this book is that it is the most outstanding example of academic pretentiousness I've ever encountered. The author's acknowledgments alone cover six pages and include over 185 names.
My own background includes a college education (philosophy and mathematics) and ten years as a college instructor in computer science. I'm quite used to reading and comprehending technically sophisticated literature, often poorly written. I can even claim to have understood much of Microsoft's documentation for their developer products. Nevertheless, I found Mr. Helmreich's prose quite inpenetrable. If his goal was to explain the people and culture behind the new field of Artificial Life to a lay audience, he has failed miserably.
To be fair, I must admit that I put the book down after struggling through the first thirty pages of the main text. The book's cover states that Mr. Helmreich is a professor at NYU. If the prose in his book is any indication of the lucidity of his lectures to his students, they have my deepest sympathy.