E.L. Doctorow

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Easily the best article I’ve read about E.L. Doctorow in the wake of his death is Ron Rosenbaum’s expansive Los Angeles Review of Books piece about the late novelist. It glides easily from Charles Darwin to Thomas Nagel to the hard problem of consciousness to the “electrified meat” in our skulls to the “Jor-El warning” in Doctorow’s final fiction, Andrew’s Brain. That clarion call was directed at the Singularity, which the writer feared would end human exceptionalism, and, of course, it would. More a matter of when than if.

An excerpt:

Not to spoil the mood but I feel a kind of responsibility to pass on Doctorow’s Jor-El warning, even if I don’t completely understand it. I would nonetheless contend that — coming from a person as steeped as he is in the contemplation of the Mind and its possibilities, the close reading of consciousness, of that twain of brain and mind and the mysteries of their relationship — attention should be paid. It seemed like a message he wanted me to convey.

I asked him to expand upon the idea voiced in Andrew’s Brain that once a computer was created that could replicate everything in the brain, once machines can think as men, when we’ve achieved true “artificial intelligence” or “ the singularity” as it’s sometimes called, it would be “catastrophic.”

“There is an outfit in Switzerland,” he says. “And this is a fact — they’re building a computer to emulate a brain. The theory is, of course, complex. There are billions of things going on in the brain but they take the position that the number of things is finite and that finally you can reach that point. Of course there’s a lot more work to do in terms of the brain chemistry and so on. So Andrew says to Doc ‘the twain will remain.’

“But later he has this revelation because he’s read, as I had, a very responsible scientist saying that it was possible someday for computers to have consciousness. That was said in a piece by a very respected neuroscientist by the name of Gerald Edelman. So the theory is this: If we do ever figure out how the brain becomes what we understand as consciousness, our feelings, our wishes, our desires, dreams — at that point we will know enough to simulate with a computer the human brain — and the computer will achieve consciousness. That is a great scientific achievement if it ever occurs. But if it does, all the old stories are gone. The Bible, everything.”


“Because the idea of the exceptionalism of the human mind is no longer exceptional. And you’re not even dealing with the primary consciousness of animals, of different degrees of understanding. You’re talking about a machine that could now think, and the dominion of the human mind no longer exists. And that’s disastrous because it’s earth-shaking. I mean, imagine.”•

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E.L. Doctorow, who wrote several great novels and one perfect one (Ragtime), sadly just died. Historical fiction can be a really tiresome thing in most hands, especially when the subjects are recent ones, but Doctorow was as good as anyone at the truth-fiction mélange. I’ve never read his early sci-fi book, Big As Life, and would like to.

A brief 1975 People magazine article cataloged that rare moment when literary success dovetailed with the commercial kind, Apparently, Robert Altman was first set to direct the big-screen adaptation of Ragtime, those honors eventually falling to Milos Forman. The opening:

The offers went up like the temperature in steamy Manhattan—$1 million, $1.5 million. And when the final bid of $1.85 million came in, an ambitious 270-page novel called Ragtime had made literary history. It was the highest price ever paid for paperback rights to a book—edging out the Joy of Cooking by $350,000. Nine publishing houses spent more than 12 hours politely jockeying before Bantam Books made the deal.

Ragtime‘s genteel, 44-year-old author E.L. Doctorow did not, of course, attend the vulgar merchandising rites. That’s what agents are for. Doctorow was in fact 45 minutes from Broadway, browsing in a New Rochelle bookstore with his 13-year-old son, Sam, at the historic moment of sale. Finally reached by phone by his hardback publisher at Random House, Doctorow was pleased but not overwhelmed at the news that he was an instant millionaire (he will receive half the $1.8 million plus royalties on the best-selling hard cover). His three previous novels—critical but not financial triumphs—had given him a Garboesque perspective on wealth. “I really feel,” Doctorow says, “that money is like sex—it’s a private matter.”

For Bantam, the transaction will turn financially sour unless it can peddle Ragtime, to be published next summer at over $2 a copy, to 4 or 5 million customers. A big box-office movie usually helps push paperback sales, and film rights for Ragtime have been sold to this year’s top director, Robert (Nashville) Altman. Doctorow has already heard from a fellow alumnus of Kenyon College in Ohio who wants to be one of the leads. “Remember me?” asked Paul Newman. “We went to college together, and I’d love to play in the movie.” “Terrific,” said a flattered Doctorow—who graduated in 1952, three years after the 50-year-old Newman, and never met the actor—”you’d be great for the part of the father.” But, protested Newman, “I want to play the younger brother.”•


There are things I dislike (guns and spying among them) that seem fairly impossible to control with the tools we presently have and those we will soon have. It’s almost naive to believe that we can legislate away such things. 

But here’s an idea: What if we’re in the sunset of a powerful centralized government in America? What if the same tools that are making it so easy to snoop are going to make regulation all but impossible? Perhaps the greatest concern in the future won’t be government control but a lack thereof.

An Atlantic piece by Emma Green provides coverage of “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?” a Google event featuring E.L. Doctorow and David Simon which considered the NSA and the state of privacy. Perhaps the guests’ fears of an Orwellian state are warranted or perhaps they miss the point. Maybe 2084 has a whole different set of challenges in store for us. A passage about the complicity of information companies with a spying government:

Doctorow, a prolific author whose work includes a fictionalized account of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, agreed: ‘They’re on the same page, as we like to say. The NSA couldn’t work without the agreement or participation of these companies. Their priority is to create wealth for themselves—you’re right to be alarmed.’ 

Google’s [Ross] LaJeunesse jumped in: ‘I really wasn’t going to interrupt the program, because I’m here to listen. But I did want to set the record straight,’ he said.

It is important, when we talk about these issues, to talk with specificity and to speak about facts. It is a real danger to conflate the actions of a government, that are not transparent, with something a company like Google does. We’re completely transparent. We give control to the users—they can use our services without signing in. If you choose to sign in, we give you complete control over that data as well. We even give you a button so that you can delete all that data at once or export it to another service.

Simon, a former Baltimore Sun journalist and the creator of the TV series The Wire, was dubious.

But is it a matter of hunting down these moments where Google … informs you that it is going to use your information in some new and varied way, and you have to negate [that use]?

I had to opt out of a program where stuff I said online could be used in advertising. That’s a rather cynical performance. Shouldn’t I have to opt into it, something that extraordinary?”

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Ford to New York: Drop dead, you filthy, egg-sucking dogs. I will dine on your rotting carcasses. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly.)

With the aid of the fun book, New York Year by Year: A Chronology of the Great Metropolis by Jeffrey A. Kroessler, I previously presented you with the ten most amazing historical moments in NYC in 1906 and 1967. Before I return the book to my shelf, I go to it one last time to help me present the biggest and best in NYC for 1975.

Read other Listeria lists.

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