Tiffany Shlain's BRAINPOWER: FROM NEURONS TO NETWORKS
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
I’ve been interested in reading about the human brain ever since a family member had successful brain surgery. Given that my consulting frequently touches on Internet related issues, combining brain- and Internet-related topics in a single book seemed like a “no-brainer” to appeal to my interests.
The theme of this book is that the Internet is at an early stage of development and is not unlike how a child’s brain is also at an early stage of development.
How this relationship plays out in the book was not clear to me. Yes, the concept of “connections” is common to both brain development and the Internet, yet this yields little more than a rather general recommendation that we need to take care of and manage these connections so that they develop in a positive way. That’s nice but the same recommendation could be made without forcing a comparison of the two.
I do admit being impatient with this book, for two reasons.
First, the scientific and technical information presented seem greatly oversimplified, especially the information about the brain. In the past I have found that when technical topics are oversimplified they can become difficult to understand and susceptible to misinterpretation due to over-use of explanatory similes and metaphors. I think that happens here. A lot of interesting ideas are pursued in only a cursory fashion. (This might also be a function of the shortness of the book.)
Second, the comparison between the developing brain and the Internet is unconvincing, in my opinion. While they both have superficially similar design features related to networking and the fundamental importance of “connections,” their respective circumstances of development and control are very different. With the brain we have millions of years of evolution. With the Internet we have decades of human intervention via electronics and telecommunications.
I’m just not convinced by this book that forcing a comparison of the two is very productive. That said, if you buy the concept of the coming “singularity,” perhaps you could eventually make a case for more similarities between the two once the Web achieves a level of self-awareness and autonomy, but that is not really explored here. Till that happens I’ll continue to believe that science has only scratched the surface of how the brain operates. We still have a huge amount to learn about how to heal the brain or to influence its development.
This is a “TED book” issued as an e-book. These are short books issued every two weeks and are usually under 20,000 words in length. The TED Books web site is here. Is the TED brand being overextended through too many outlets? Based on this book perhaps that is the case. Alternately, perhaps just too much is being attempted here in just too short a form. Still, this book does give the reader a lot to chew on and an eclectic bibliography is supplied at the end.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald.