Look to the little grey cells.

Poirot and Inspector Japp

“It is the little grey cells, mon ami, on which one must rely.”– Hercule Poirot (speaking literally under the authority of Agatha Christie).

Streaming video has made binge-watching a thing. But covid-19 has taken binge-watching viral[1]. Deprived of dining out, travel, and big-venue sports and entertainment, we’ve made streaming video a worldwide pastime. We’re spending our evenings on the prowl for fresh content. 

At our place, we’ve worked through a number of options: one recurrent theme (apart from videos of old live country music performances) has been British crime. So far we’ve worked through Morse, Lewis, Endeavour, Shetland, Hinterland, and Vera, among others, and we’ve barely made a dent (who knew the English were such a murderous lot?). We’ve also consumed Miss Marple.

Which brings us to Hercule Poirot. (Thirteen seasons. A couple of dozen single episodes, perhaps 30-40 more double episodes. Perfect, as the Belgian detective might say, “for the watching of the binge.” So far we’re only 20% through…)  

Poirot was one of a kind, unique unto himself. His companion Hastings described him this way:

… hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.

Ah, the Poirot brain. In each mystery case, Poirot’s little grey cells are his starting point, his sole focus and priority throughout, and his instrument for delivering the coup de grace at the end. Invariably the authorities and those around him approach each crime or conundrum in great states of mental agitation and with commensurate physical hyperactivity, little of which bears fruit. Meantime, Poirot has usually retreated to a Zen-like state of preternatural calm and thought, often at a fine restaurant, allowing him to distinguish between the essential – however seemingly inconsequential – and the superfluous, no matter how weighty in outward appearance. 

This trait is understandably annoying, the more so, since in Poirot’s own words Always I am right. It is so invariable it startles me… I must be right because I am never wrong. Hastings, Inspector Japp, and others constantly berate him for his refusal to lend a hand to the great efforts that test them. Agatha Christie herself said of him at one point that he was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”

But Poirot remains unmoved.

Each of us – eight billion strong – blend bits of Hastings and Poirot. We constantly balance our proclivity for thought and our desire to act. Two great challenges, covid-19 and climate change, rivet the world’s attention these days. It’s vital that we take action with respect to each, not neglecting either totally in our need to deal with each other. But it’s equally important that we think through what action is needed before leaping into either fray. 

Fortunately, we’ve never been better equipped. When it comes to action, the past two centuries of technological advance and economic development, and deployment of trillions of dollars of energy, water, food, communications, and financial infrastructure have us favorably positioned. 

And when it comes to thinking, order-of-magnitude ten billion people with 100 billion neurons per person have at our disposal an astronomical 1021 little grey cells to bring to bear. In the meantime, we’ve developed digital supplements – information technology, based on the billion or so transistors in each chip at the heart of a cellphone, and in supercomputing of growing power, aggregating, according to one estimate 3×1021. A coincidence? Certainly. And fleeting; transistors are proliferating like rabbits, even as humans throttle back on population growth. 

(The comparison is a bit unhelpful. A neuron can fire 100 or so times a second; a transistor switches on and off a billion times faster. But a transistor has only three connections to the outside world, while a neuron can be connected to other neurons through as many as 10,000 synapses. It’s like comparing an apple with a cyber-orange.)

Fact is, we may be reaching a bit of a tipping point. Around the time most of us were born, human beings were clearly in the driver’s seat. But today, the IT world is giving us a run for our money. A century or so from now, historians, or their robo-counterparts, may see this transition as significant – perhaps more momentous in impact on human affairs than either covid-19 or climate change. Doubt this? Let me offer binge-watching as a case in point. Okay, a bit tongue-in-cheek; but the point is, we’re releasing the genie; going forward, we’re living with it[2]

But we remain in charge until further notice. Any artificial intelligence serves us, not the other way around. With that comes responsibility. 

Today, this Memorial Day weekend, we give thanks to those who sacrificed their lives on the field of combat so that we might enjoy the blessings of liberty and some measure of peace. Let us also give thanks to our predecessors who took advantage of that liberty and opportunity to advance the science, technology, and associated infrastructure that position us to meet today’s global challenges, which are battles of a different kind. Let’s do them honor by steadfastly (and thinking of today’s healthcare workers, even heroically, when necessary) wielding the new tools time and circumstance and their efforts have given us, and thus do our bit to build a better world. 

We can’t afford to dally! Neither can we jump in naively or willy-nilly. Let’s be thoughtful, and start, and continue as we proceed, to exercise the little grey cells.

Saving the binge-watching for day’s end.

[1]So to speak… Apologies, have been housebound far too long…

[2]As noted years ago in in Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, edited by Lightman, Sarewitz, and Desser (2003).

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