Saturday, May 19, 2007


Gumption. I love that old Scottish word (which I recall from my childhood), although I'm not really sure it means much, and even less sure that I grasp what little meaning it might have. My online dictionary says it designates "shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness". Then there's a wishy-washy example about a woman who had the gumption to put her foot down and dissuade a fellow from pursuing his crazy schemes. In fact, I don't like that example. In my mind, this vague stuff called gumption—whatever it might be—is exactly what you need to pursue crazy schemes. I would go so far as to say that, without a good supply of gumption, it would be crazy to even think about crazy schemes. In such contexts, gumption is a sine qua non.

For some time now, I've been saying to myself [that's a habit derived from living for too long in France: the homeplace and haven of reflexive verbs] that, if only I had the necessary gumption, I would embark upon a popular-science book project, to be known simply by a one-word title: Creation. The basic idea—the inspiration, if I were to take myself more gumptiously—is that, while the scientific writers Brian Greene and Richard Dawkins have already done a hell of lot about making the world a more understandable (but not necessarily easier) place to live in, they are both visibly weak (well, less than optimal) in the domain of computing.

I had this impression about Dawkins when I first read The Blind Watchmaker. Like everything by Dawkins, it's a fabulous book, but his biomorphs (computerized graphic gadgets) reveal instantly that the author is a novice computerist, unfamiliar with more sophisticated realms of information science... otherwise he would have alluded to the pioneering work of precursors such as John von Neumann and others. [Click here to see my earlier blog article.]

The "missing link" between Dawkins and me (to borrow a silly Darwin-inspired expression) might be referred to pompously as the computing paradigm. Already, back at the time of my Machina Sapiens [click here to see an earlier reference to this book], I hinted at the fact that we computerists are tempted to see almost everything in terms of... computing. There's a trivial saying in France. What do you bike-riders talk about when they come together? They talk about... bikes! Well, we computerists are like bike-riders. It's a fact. We see the world as some kind of a giant computer...

In the USA in 1971, when I was filming Les machines et les hommes for French TV, I encountered an amazing man named Ed Fredkin. If I remember correctly, he was in charge of computers in the artificial-intelligence laboratory at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], whose intellectual star was, of course, Marvin Minsky. Fredkin invited me to his family home to talk about his work and my TV project. There, in his family environment, I lost no time in discovering that Edward Fredkin was an amazing individual... probably one of the most surprising and talented people I've ever met. He didn't fit into the US academic mold. He belonged to an intellectual America that has fascinated me on countless occasions, that has nothing to do with Bush mediocracy. As a retired jet pilot in the US Air Force, Fredkin came upon computers as some kind of a gigantic and delightful game, which enabled him to become a millionaire, among other things. When I met up with him, he was fascinated by the possibilities of computer music, and had actually designed a prototype thing that emitted ugly noises. Ed was persuaded that this amazing gadget would enable him to earn further millions, and he started out naively by manufacturing hundreds of these devices which were stored, when I met up with Ed, in the basement of his luxurious Massachusetts home.

Today, the former jet-fighter pilot Edward Fredkin is living somewhere on the planet Earth in recluse... as a digital monk. I would love to see him again, but I don't know how to go about getting back in contact with him.

Meanwhile, an MIT acolyte named Seth Lloyd has become famous by publishing a wonderful book on the subject that enthralls me. Basically, in terribly rough terms, the idea is that quantum mechanics can be visualized as a computerized affair. It's all very vague, very hard to fathom. That's why I'm hoping, as a writer, that I'll be able to amass enough mysterious gumption to tackle this affair, and put a little much-needed order into the Cosmos.

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