Monday, June 15, 2009

Michael Crichton's Prey: 4/5

One of my favorite things about reading novels and watching movies is when a movie or book attacks me with some new idea I've never thought of. That's probably the main reason I enjoy reading Michael Crichton. Some people don't like his style or his somewhat formulaic approach, but I don't read his novels for either style or innovation. I read them because (a) when they're fun, they're really fun and (b) they have some very thought-provoking ideas hiding underneath them.

I just finished reading his 2002 novel Prey. The basic concept is that a defense contractor develops nanotechnology to use for reconnaissance. Through some interestingly developed techno talk, we learn that Xymos, the evil bad guy corp, breaks all kinds of labor laws---including my favorite and yours, the 13th Amendment---by employing bacteria on the assembly line. Well, as usually happens, the nanotechnology gets out of control, learns how to self-sustain, evolves, and then tries to take over the world.

What's new about that? Well, just this. Crichton talks a lot about swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence is, basically, the notion that a few simple rules can be followed by very simple creatures to accomplish amazingly complex things. Which brings me to an interesting idea . . .
If you want to think of it that way, a human being is actually a giant swarm. Or more precisely, it's a swarm of swarms, because each organ---blood, liver, kidneys---is a separate swarm. What we refer to as a "body" is really the combination of all these organ swarms.
We think our bodies are solid, but that's only because we can't see what is going on at the cellular level. If you could enlarge the human body, blow it up to a vast size, you would see that it was literally nothing but a swirling mass of cells and atoms, clustered together into smaller swirls of cells and atoms.
Who cares? Well, it turns out a lot of processing occurs at the level of the organs. Human behavior is determined in many places. The control of our behavior is not located in our brains. It's all over our bodies.
So you could argue that "swarm intelligence" rules human beings, too. Balance is controlled by the cerebellar swarm, and rarely comes to consciousness. Other processing occurs in the spinal cord, the stomach, the intestine. A lot of vision takes place in the eyeballs, long before the brain is involved.
Stay with me now.
So there's an argument that the whole structure of consciousness, and the human sense of self-control and purposefulness, is a user illusion. We don't have conscious control over ourselves at all. We just think we do.
Just because human beings went around thinking of themselves as "I" didn't mean it was true.
Could this explain why psychology is a two-way mirror? It seems like we can always look at our friends and neighbors and pick out their problems (and solutions), but we can never figure our own out. Maybe that's because our consciousness is spread across our billions of cells, the vast majority of which are too busy digesting, oxygenating, or doing whatever to pay attention to the deeper questions of life.

I'm not saying I buy it. I'm just saying it's an interesting thing to think about.


Anonymous said...

A book from Crichton I missed? I will have to check it out. Hope all is well with you and yours.

-Ramblin' Texan

Jeremy Masten said...

Hey! Ramblin' Texan! How go things? Things are pretty good. The Missus moved me up to Maryland, so I'm wasting all that precious Texas law I learned at Baylor. You moved to Houston, right?

Anonymous said...

Going well here.....Brownwood to Waco to Baltimore...I think there a story there. Feel free at chazwm3 yahoo.