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Is it time for digital biology?

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 27, 2012 09:33 AM

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Nowadays we're all engaged in a sprawling conversation about digital life. Usually, we talk about it in economic terms, or in terms of privacy and rights. (Is Apple a monopoly? Can we trust Facebook? How much control should we have over the online data we leave behind?) A great recent volume about these issues, which comes at them from a legal perspective, is Julie Cohen's Configuring the Networked Self -- you can watch a talk of hers here, and I'll be writing more about the book in the coming weeks.

Still, you might have the sneaking suspicion that legal and economic approaches to the new digital world are a little narrow. Over at Edge, George Dyson, author of the excellent, recent Turing's Cathedral, thinks we would be wise to get some physicists and, especially, biologists thinking about the new digital universe. The real significance of the networked world, he argues, is essentially biological: It's that we've created a whole biosphere of autonomous, self-replicating codes, which are multiplying and communicating without us. "It's just the small warm pond," he says, "sitting there waiting for the spark."

The defining moment for me was when I went back to Princeton to visit the scene of [the early days of the computer].... I went down in the basement to find the room where they had started building this machine in 1946. It's the storeroom in the basement next to the boiler room at the Institute for Advanced Study.... I went back there in 2005, 60 years later, and it happened to be the main server room for the Institute....

When the engineer there on duty gave me a tour the most remarkable thing was an entire server, very high-end, very sophisticated—a few years ago, we would have called it a supercomputer. It was sitting there on the top shelf, and all the fiber-optic lines were going through it, and its sole, 24 hour a day job, was monitoring all the data coming in, trying to keep out self-replicating strings of code....

Cookies, Dyson argues, are primitive parasitic self-replicating codes: "They are small strings of code that go out and gather valuable bits of information, and they come back and sell it to somebody." Whole companies are based on that revenue stream. Or consider the vast number of computer programs which talk to each other at microsecond speed: "There's a whole world of communication that's not human communication. It's machines communicating with machines." We might be at the beginning of a "biological" explosion, all taking place in the digital world.

As is usual at Edge, the whole article is speculative, yet fascinating.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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