What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Galatea 2.2
by Richard Powers

Field-Tested by John Tolva

on a plane headed to Rome, Italy

It’s easy to laugh at thirteen-years later, like making fun of design clichés of early websites. But I admit I bought the book because it had a pixelated Raphael painting on the cover. And back then that meant edgy, high-tech, and maybe culturally refined, too. An odd threesome, worth the purchase for the lit-dork I was, and my read for a trip to Europe.

The LCD flight map showed Godthåb, Greenland and a lot of nothing else at all. The cabin was darkened so passengers could simulate sleep, but my little reading light carved a cylinder of solitude that might as well have been a private, walnut-paneled study.

Galatea 2.2 is the story of Richard Powers, a writer stuck on line one (so, in that way, every writer’s story). Powers, protagonist and author, accepts a bet from colleagues that he can’t train an experimental supercomputer named Helen to write a passable English graduate essay on any subject given to her. He’s a modern Pygmalion, sandwiched between the artifices of fiction and AI, both of which cause him to wonder if human intelligence is anything special.

There’s a deep question at the core of the tale. Is bookish knowledge itself enough to promote real thought or is experience in the world, field-tested, the way to synthesize the chaos of context and nuance that’s life? Knowing versus doing.

On that airplane, halfway between a new world of nineties high-tech enthusiasm and an old world of classic art and design, I was stuck in a similar place — an English graduate student wholly smitten with the new world of networked communication and wondering if there weren’t a smidgen of truth to the anti-academic chestnut “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Powers’ adventure as a humanist in a computer lab — from right lobe to left, and back again — was inspiring and scary, and the source of some wicked jet lag in Rome, among the unretouched Raphaels.

Galatea 2.2 is a pseudo-autobiography, a work of make-believe whose main character happens to be the author. Powers plays the game of writing about himself as he might have been, or could one day be, and most certainly, had been in the past. It’s a powerful device. I’ve been play-acting my own pseudo-autobiography ever since.

John Tolva heads up IBM’s programs with museums and cultural institutions around the world. He chronicles this and other intersections of technology, design, and culture at Ascent Stage.

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