On Uploading Books to One’s Brain

This article is based on my attempt in April 2017 to say what is wrong with the notion of uploading a book to one’s brain. The article originally formed part of the article “On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book I,” but now I cannot clearly recall why I wanted to combine the two, unless it was to give the example of the Iliad as a book that could not be uploaded to one’s brain, at least if this uploading was to be effortless on one’s part. Having separated out the article below, and made some small changes, I am not entirely happy with the flow of the article; but I am not currently prepared to write a replacement.

Cathy O’Neil wrote with astonishment on the question, “What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?Ray Kurzweil thinks we are going to be able to do this: upload books to our brains. I would say, something may well be possible that could be described as uploading a book to your brain. A more urgent task is downloading texts from the brain, when the brain belongs to a person with locked-in syndrome. This downloading may be possible, though the locked-in person cannot move a muscle. She can still move her brain. She can compose a text that might be downloaded, because in principle at least, composing is an act of thought alone. In practice, we may compose with pen in hand or keys under the fingers; but those tools are not strictly needed, or one may learn to do without them. In any case, nobody and nothing else can compose what we want to say. The bits and pieces of what we want to express are not lying around our brain, waiting to be picked up by an automated program.

Somebody or something else might be able to anticipate what we want to say. A good novel may do this; but we have to confirm it, by reading. To read a novel is to recompose it for ourselves, so to speak. Again, nobody and nothing else can do this work for us. Kurzweil’s imagined technology might make the novel available to us, without the need to move the focus of our eyeballs along lines of printed text. But this moving of the eyes is only an accidental feature of reading. O’Neil concludes therefore that Kurzweil must have something more in mind. He may think he does. O’Neil suggests two possibilities: that a book may be made a part of our memory, and that the very meaning of the book may be adjusted, according to who we are. She admits that she “would find the lack of active participation creepy.” It is more than creepy, I would say: it is proof that there is no alternative to reading a book. The real movement of reading is done with our thoughts. The brain can be moved, as by drugs; but reading is something one does, not something done to oneself.

Learning in general is something one must do for oneself. I first read Homer’s Iliad for a course in ancient Greek history in the ninth grade of school; could I have wished to be spared the trouble of reading? A year earlier, I had become friends with a new boy in school, a boy who knew French from having grown up in Francophone Africa. He said he could do my French homework for me. I considered the possibility, but realized that it would be of no benefit. Homework was not an empty exercise, but it made me more knowledgeable or skilled. This would only happen if I did the work for myself.

Thus do I make confession—if confession it be—to having been a dutiful student. In some ways I was not, but let me not try to go into that here. I should like to think that I understood my real duty as being to myself. In tenth grade, a French teacher would assign vocabulary words, without bothering to tell us their genders. A classmate and I commiserated on having to look up the genders in our dictionaries, if we actually wanted to use the words. Apparently we didn’t think to make up genders. We were somehow too obedient. However, I think our obedience was not to the teacher as such, but to the truth. Maybe the teacher himself didn’t know the genders of the words he assigned, or didn’t care about them. He was French, a pied-noir. He was also abusive to the weaker students, and the unpleasantness of his classroom manner was a reason why I dropped French after fulfilling the three-and-a-half-year requirement. This teacher was not somebody I needed to please out of respect for him.

In those adolescent years, in my neighborhood at home, I enjoyed playing the game called Twixt from a friend’s collection. The friend ultimately gave the game to me, and I have it here in Istanbul now. Back then one day, I was playing the game with another friend, and I was winning, and she wished she could thwart me with a certain illegal move. This made no sense. The whole point of playing the game was to learn what I would describe as its mathematics. Winning was desirable only as a sign of having learned. A win would be meaningless if achieved through a last-minute rule change, granted by some external power. Winning this way would be like—like having a book uploaded to your brain.

My first awareness of Ray Kurzweil came from a lecture by Edward Frenkel at Boğaziçi University on December 3, 2015. Frenkel reported Kurzweil’s fantasy of sending nanobots into the brains of people who knew his father, to recover memories that would allow the late Frederic Kurzweil to be brought back to life. This suggests to me, as I think it did to Frenkel, a person of desperate sadness. I don’t think technology will solve his problem.

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