I’ve been reading Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime over recent weeks (mostly on bus journeys up and down to Cork), and enjoying it very much. It is not my intention to review it here or anything of the sort (for a very enjoyable review see, for example, Mark O’Connell’s on newyorker.com), rather what I want to do is reproduce a few of the striking paragraphs in the closing chapter . . .
‘So the locus of the code’s dance is not only logic gates or the gleaming fields of random-access memory; code also moves within the millions of humans who encounter its effects, not just programmers. Code already shapes the world of the non-programmers and embeds itself into their bodies, into their experience of themselves, into lived sensation and therefore the realm of experience and aesthetics. Soon, in the near future, we will live inside an experience mediated by computers; all those science fiction fantasies of eyeglasses that can overlay data over what you see, of new means of sensing the world through android extensions of our bodies, all these are already possible, they already exist.
‘And this is not all. We will programme ourselves and the world we live in. Consider this: the four letters of the genetic alphabet that makes up DNA — A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine) — are really, quite literally, a programming language. And this language can be represented in binary code, which means that it can be manipulated on a computer. A recent article in the Atlantic lays out the process and the possibilities:
‘The latest technology — known as synthetic biology, or ‘synbio’ — moves the work [of biotechnology] from the molecular to the digital. Genetic code is manipulated using the equivalent of a word processor. With the press of a button, code representing DNA can be cut and pasted, effortlessly imported from one species into another. It can be reused and repurposed. DNA bases can be swapped in and out with precision. And once the code looks right? Simply hit Send. A dozen different DNA print shops can now turn these bits into biology.
‘The DNA print shop will send back vials of ‘frozen plasmid DNA,’ which you will then inject into a host bacterial cell, causing this cell to ‘boot up’ using the DNA code you’ve created. The cell will metabolize, grow, and reproduce. Congratulations — you have just created a new form of life.
‘Synthetic biology is ‘currently advancing at 5 times the speed of Moore’s Law.’ The cost of synbio is falling exponentially, and the tools are already so easy to use that schoolchildren can wield them effectively . . .
‘The possibility of programmed biology are awesome and terrifying: engineering T-cells that kill cancer but avoid the generalized depredations of chemotherapy; assassin viruses that leap harmlessly from person to person until they find their DNA-profiled target and cause a quick death; a terrorist cooking up a species-killing weapon in his garage. Bioluminescent trees that glow in the dark, providing lighting for city streets. DNA hard drives — rewritable data-storage systems that can store information within cells. . . .
‘And yes, engineered humans immune to disease, capable of recalling every fleeting experience like Funes the Memorious, no longer just homo sapiens but transformed by imported bits from other species. ‘The interspecies barrier is falling as fast as the Berlin Wall did in 1989,’ George M. Church writes in his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.
‘Not just occasional horizontal transfer but massive and intentional exchange — there is a global marketplace for genes. Not the isolating effects of islands or valleys resulting in genetic drift and xenophobia, but a growing addiction to foreign gene products, for example, humans ‘mating’ with wormwood for the antimalarial drug precursor artemisinin, and with Clostridium for Botox.’
EXTRACTED from Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, pp. 223-5. In the U.S. the book seems to have the subtitle ‘the Beauty of Code and the Code of Beauty’, which is a much better sub-title, and much better represents the central focus of the book as a whole wherein the argument is that code ought to be understood like art, and that, in fact, computer code is much more significant and subtle than any artistic creation. It is a book I totally recommend, a fascinating read, really worthwhile and very well written — indeed, it is the best book on computing I’ve ever read: I was able to follow all the computing chapters very well, and I really looked forward to the next one, however, I felt at sea with the chapters on tantric philosophers and on Sanskrit et cet. It is the kind of book I will return to, I believe — I will reread it in a two or three or four years time, in part because it’s a good read and will support several readings, in part because I am sure I’ve only got some of the good from it (i.e., it will reward several readings), and in part as a measure of the progress I will have made (hopefully) in the digital domain in which I am still but a hunter-gatherer, mud-hut dweller on the edge of an incomprehensibly vast savannah.
For a more extended extract from Chandra’s book, see the extract in the Paris Review (September 2014), from chapter 6, ‘The Beauty of Code’ (pp. 121-41, in my copy, the extract in the Paris Review, that is; in full, chapter 6 runs from p. 121 to p. 147): click here