Being a bit behind the curve, I had only just heard of the digital revolution last February when Louis Rossetto, cofounder of Wired magazine, wearing a shirt with no collar and his hair as long as Felix Mendelssohn’s, looking every inch the young California visionary, gave a speech before the Cato Institute announcing the dawn of the twenty–first century’s digital civilization. As his text, he chose the maverick Jesuit scientist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who fifty years ago prophesied that radio, television, and computers would create a “noösphere,” an electronic membrane covering the earth and wiring all humanity together in a single nervous system. Geographic locations, national boundaries, the old notions of markets and political processes—all would become irrelevant. With the Internet spreading over the globe at an astonishing pace, said Rossetto, that marvelous modem–driven moment is almost at hand.
Could be. But something tells me that within ten years, by 2006, the entire digital universe is going to seem like pretty mundane stuff compared to a new technology that right now is but a mere glow radiating from a tiny number of American and Cuban (yes, Cuban) hospitals and laboratories. It is called brain imaging, and anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty–first–century dawn will want to keep an eye on it.
Brain imaging refers to techniques for watching the human brain as it functions, in real time. The most advanced forms currently are three–dimensional electroencephalography using mathematical models; the more familiar PET scan (positron–emission tomography); the new fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which shows brain blood–flow patterns, and MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy), which measures biochemical changes in the brain; and the even newer PET reporter gene/PET reporter probe, which is, in fact, so new that it still has that length of heavy lumber for a name. Used so far only in animals and a few desperately sick children, the PET reporter gene/PET reporter probe pinpoints and follows the activity of specific genes. On a scanner screen you can actually see the genes light up inside the brain.