Achieving Star Trek

Culture is an engine that transforms food into ideas. Individual bodies are responsible for turning food into energy, but it takes a mind to create ideas, and a mind is possible only in a community. Just as a body requires some sort of ecosystem to provide it with air, warmth, water, fuel, etc., a mind needs a community – a culture – to provide it with language, traditions, values, genders, social classes, and theories. Within any culture, an individual mind can do a lot of experimenting, creating new theories and rebelling against old traditions; or it can find new ways to defend the received views against the new challenges. Either way, new ideas, and, over time, new cultures.

Bound up with culture and ideas is technology, but techs, once developed, begin to live their own lives in a kind of dialectic with culture. Each tech opens up new domains for ideas, and closes down others. The new ideas – or the vacant spaces where other new ideas would have been – lead in turn to new tech possibilities. We’re not in control of the machines, and they don’t simply control us. It’s a dance, and it can be a waltz, a jitterbug, or a danse macabre. Think, for example, of the first Macintosh, the internet, and the crossbow; or the printing press, the phonograph, and artillery. And now think of how both culture and technology would have been, had any of these techs not developed.

Since ideas are developed by individual agents in a cultural tension with other agents, when techs get thrown into the mix, they act as cultural accelerants. The engine runs faster. For with the coming of new techs, it’s not just a matter of words being batted about, with institutions responding slowly over generations; but the ideas become embodied in machines, and the effects of the machines are here and now and have to be dealt with. New laws, institutions, and practices have to be developed on the fly, and these shoulder their ways into the ideosphere, inflaming new passionate arguments and theories. Culture has no option but to evolve at a faster rate.

In all likelihood, truly intelligent machines – not just clever gadgets –  are coming soon. If techs are cultural accelerants, intelligent machines will be cultural fission: an accelerant like no other. For AIs will not just be problematic opportunities plunked down on our landscape; they will be active, responsive culture-producers themselves. The question will be whether culture can evolve fast enough. Or, rather, the question will be whether humans get left behind.

What does that even mean? One nightmarish scenario is the world of Terminator and The Matrix: machines rapidly evolve a culture that has no place for us, and we become at best superfluous and at worst a nuisance. They enslave us. Another scenario is a kind of technosynthesis, in which humans and machines together evolve a culture unlike any we have seen before, one in which the boundaries between humans and machines disappear, and something new – the posthuman – comes on stage. A third scenario – the bleakest – is a clusterfuck of unintended consequences that amounts to cultural armageddon. What’s left is a planet devoid of minds, or perhaps (only slightly better) a new stone age, where we return to the joys of banging rocks together.

united_federation_of_planets_002_by_scharfshutzeOr it could turn out that humans are not left behind, and we manage to craft a future that allows for a fruitful symbiosis of humans and machines. Call this the Star Trek scenario. Star Trek presents a world where we have overcome selfishness with intelligence, fear with curiosity, and barbarism with civilization. The scenario is utopian, to be sure, which means it is a “good” place that exists “no” place, and the Star Trek franchise itself is long on hope and short on details. But if we find we would like to stave off enslavement, technosynthesis, and armageddon, we might start thinking through some details, and start transforming the food we eat into the idea of a future that has us in it.

 

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Being obducted into other worlds

4215ObductionI have been sucked into the latest game made by the Myst people, Obduction. I’m about a third of the way through, but the premise seems to be that there are four or five worlds existing in the same space in different dimensions, and all are connected to the same tree. Or they are supposed to be connected: the fundamental puzzle, as with all Myst games, is to get stuff hooked up. Trying to get the power on is an odd way of having fun, but there are those of us who love this sort of problem, and can spend days on it (19.8 hours so far for me).

The Myst series is excellent in terms of graphics, story, imagination, and puzzle creation, and Obduction is no disappointment. The alien worlds are stunningly beautiful, and the alien  tech seems to make its own internal sense; it is the right combination of other-worldly and yet figure-out-able. I’ve never been involved with creating a game, but I’d like to think the creators spend a big chunk of time thinking their way through the internal logic of a totally alien world, including that world’s biosphere, culture, traditions, and iconography. What a marvelous and exciting way of exercising one’s mind!

The same attraction must hold for those writing rich fantasy novels. It’s fun to have a story to tell, but that is the smallest good. The biggest draw is worldmaking. The Myst people made this connection explicit with the main idea animating their early games: it is possible to create a steampunkish, alchemical book that can transport you into another realm, just by opening its pages. In an AMA on reddit, Myst’s co-creator, Rand Miller, said of Tolkien: “In simpler terms – he created an entire universe, and then punched smaller windows into pieces of it that the public could look through.”

In fact, at times I think that these sorts of games taking place in other worlds are the natural successor to the novel. Novels are wonderful, of course, but inherently linear. An author can tell the story out of order, making it seem less linear, but the reader is still stuck with the order of exposition that’s given. In virtual worlds, one can explore along different tracks, and over time begin to develop for oneself the overall picture of what has gone on or is going on. It presents a world for the players/readers to explore in their own ways. When I’m playing the Myst games, and have spent sufficient time wandering around in them, my mind is carried into them, and I go around in my own life with a pleasant buzz of divided attention. I’m partly here, and partly there. The same happens with great novels too, of course – we can’t get our minds out of them.

Okay. Back to getting things hooked up……

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I’m not worried about the humanities

Humanists complain loudly about the direction taken by modern universities, and with good reason. An education in the humanities generally requires spending a lot of time reading and thinking on one’s own, and engaging in wandering and complicated conversations with like-minded souls, usually without any new technologies, policy decisions, or scientific discoveries coming along as results. Nothing could be more antithetical to “the modern university,” which is alleged to be full of bright-eyed enthusiasts working together to create new technologies to save us from ourselves. The humanists don’t fit easily into this picture, which happens to be the one placed on websites and recruitment brochures by university administrators and student-service types. So humanists are left complaining about being left out, or else they start re-branding themselves as the kind of people you want at those brainstorming sessions.

I used to care about this, but now I don’t. I think we can all admit that our society faces some tremendous problems (like those of food production, climate change, and fuel demand) that aren’t likely to be solved by further inquiry into the humanities, and it’s good to funnel smart people into disciplines most likely to solve those problems. If by some weird miracle I could fix climate change by eliminating every philosophy department in the world, I’d do it in a heartbeat, just as I’d burn the Mona Lisa if that would save a room full of children. To be sure, there’s a lot of false advertising and silly posturing in the world of university recruitment, but if somehow it manages to prompt more young people to work toward new and possibly salvific technologies, that’s great.

The other consideration making me apathetic toward the humanists’ complaint is my abiding conviction that the fate of humanistic inquiry is not tied to what goes on at universities. I say unto you: we will always have poets, scholars, and philosophers, regardless of what departments are listed on the universities’ rosters. Along these lines, Nietzsche once claimed that the best thing that one could do for the future of German philosophy would be to defund all the universities. He had bile in his pen, but the point is sound: what goes on in universities and what interesting work gets done in the business of nurturing human souls are two very different things.

Of course, really good scholarship requires time and resources, and having special departments in universities supplies them. But, at the same time, having special departments also gets bound up with all sorts of professional and disciplinary bullshit, which on the whole tends to work against the production of interesting things. So if these special, dedicated departments were to disappear, it would be a real blow, in terms of just how far and deep research could go. But the blow would be somewhat compensated for by the prospect of getting rid of the bullshit, and clearing out a freer space in which more interesting things might appear.

Ideally, no choice needs to be made here. We can have tech-driven higher education, and departments of the humanities, and everyone can do their thing, and we can all reap the rewards. Indeed, this is what we now enjoy. But in order to maintain this happy result, we do not need the humanities to be crowned as monarch of the learned disciplines, nor included in brainstorming sessions about climate change. The humanities can thrive out of the spotlight (indeed, that’s where they are more likely to thrive; I suspect it’s only narcissistic learned people who think otherwise). Short-sighted politicians, cultural wags, and university administrators must be closely monitored and their claims must be challenged – as always. But the victory condition is not finding oneself featured on recruitment brochures; it’s finding oneself with the opportunity to engage in humanistic learning – ideally, out of any spotlight shone by know-nothings. So long as that’s secure, we’re in decent shape.

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Intellectuals

Most people, for very good reason, place themselves at the center of their universe. I’m not saying they place themselves at the center of the universe, which would be a greedy and ignorant thing to do. They place themselves at the center of their own universe, which means that they place at the center of their field of attention their own lives – their own circumstances, their own ambitions, what they need to do today, their friends, what they care about, and so on. And it makes very good sense to do this – it would be kind of stupid not to.

Thus, an intellectual is sort of stupid. For an intellectual places at the center of their universe – at least, for big chunks of time – abstract questions, problems, ideas, and tensions. During those times, the personal circumstances and the individuality of the intellectual recede far into the background, or to the peripheries of one’s field of attention. If you balk at this claim, and you feel like objecting that we can never do this, that our worries and passions and desires are always the center of our universe, no matter how much we pretend to ignore them – if you say this, then you probably are an intellectual. You’ve arrived at this perfectly general conclusion not by focusing on your own life, but by thinking this through on behalf of human beings generally. If you then go on to test whether it is true in your own life, through some intensively introspective psychoanalysis, then you are not only an intellectual, but a self-aware intellectual, which is a rare bird indeed.

Intellectuals suspect that our own lives are just not that interesting, and they are right. Biographies written about a great many of us would either be absolutely unremarkable wastes of effort, or they would be hailed as ironic attempts to mock the genre of biography by providing overly trivial instances of the type. Most humans beings just aren’t all that interesting, even if they happen to be you. Intellectuals recognize this early on, and so they move their field of attention over to more interesting things. They soon begin to resent having to swivel their heads back onto their own lives and deal with day-to-day boring crap, and they try to focus on the not-me as much as they can. This leads often to comical results.

They also find it irritating to run into “intellectuals” who spend so much time trying to advance their own careers as “intellectuals.” These people are not intellectuals, not really. They have simply taken up pseudo-intellectualism as their day job, and they have placed themselves at the center of their universe – just like normal, smart people. Real intellectuals find these pseudo-intellectuals exasperating, partly because they are fakers (after all, who likes fakers?), but also because the fakers end up getting all the creaturely comforts that real intellectuals wish they had, at least when they take a moment to swivel their heads back onto their own lives. The fakers get to be at ritzy universities, and get paid lecturing gigs, and interviews in magazines, and so on. Getting these things requires smart ends-means strategizing, and real intellectuals don’t take the time to do this. So they very often end up as seemingly other-worldly people at low-paying jobs without much prestige. “If yer so smart, why aintcha rich?” is not a question they have a very good answer to. They can only say “Because I don’t think much about what I’m doing with my life.”

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Brains and typewriters

Aristotle was not aware of any mind/body problem. He understood that all (well, almost all) of the things we do with our minds are capacities of the human body. “Thinking is something a human does” – what is especially problematic about that claim? It only became problematic when Descartes stripped matter of any capacities that went beyond what clay can do: to wit, keep its shape and get shoved around. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine clay thinking, so Descartes was compelled to postulate a non-clay substance – a mind – which is, by definition, a non-clay thing with the capacity to think. The resulting problem was to try to put the special non-clay thing into causal interaction with the clay. Thus the mind/body problem, or the non-clay/clay problem.

typewriter

A view from the CRIHS.

But capacities are a better way to go. We ordinarily attribute capacities to all kinds of things without generating philosophical problems. A typewriter, for example, has the capacity to produce typewritten documents, from scrolls of gibberish to existential plays (or, at times, both at once). In order to actualize that capacity, there has to be paper in the platen, a well-inked ribbon in place, and some sort of fingered being at the helm. But more than that: in order for any of this to come about, there has to be a culture with a language in place (even for the gibberish to count as “gibberish”); there has to have been a level of technology to permit the production of both paper and typewriters; there then has to have been all the things required for such culture and technology. The point is that “capacity” does not name some magical feature that is inherent to a thing; it is a kind of abbreviation for a complicated network of items, forces, and active beings, past and present. Because a typewriter is located in that network, it has that capacity. If, through some quantum mechanical accident, a typewriter were to suddenly appear in the empty stretches of the universe, it would then lose the capacity to produce typewritten documents, except in a counterfactual sense that restores the required network: “If the typewriter were to drift to a planet populated by trees and monkeys and paper, it would have the capacity to ….”

Similarly, there is no magic feature inherent in the brain endowing it with the capacity to think. The brain, like the typewriter, resides within a vast social and historical network, and that complicated network – together with the brain’s own structural features (for they are not nothing!) – results in the brain’s capacity to think. Admittedly, it’s much harder to see what goes on here than it is in the case of the typewriter, but the point is essentially the same: capacities are not localized features, but – well – capacities to interact with other items and forces in complex environments. If the appeal to capacities is thought to embroil us in some sort of intolerable dualism, then we are similarly embroiled when it comes to our philosophical understanding of typewriters, tractors, pencil sharpeners, and gramophones: items which do not typically engender metaphysical wonder.

If this is right, then the AI people need to expand the scope of their inquiry to include a lot more social science and interpersonal psychology and communication studies, if they want to explore a machine’s capacity to think. Or, if they care more about establishing the actual fact of it than about understanding the fact, they can just do what Google, Apple, and Microsoft are already doing, and continue to integrate machine-type intelligences into our complex social network in ever-interesting ways, and wait for the capacity to emerge on its own. This is the central conceit of the character Nathan in the film Ex Machina: he grasps that the data compiled from people using search engines from all over the world itself presents the best model of human intelligence. The insight is only sketched of course, but he’s on target in thinking of intelligence as arising from broader relationships rather than as residing within some special lobe.

The one place where Aristotle did have some trouble in connecting the mind to the human body was in our grasp of the most abstract truths. We have the capacity, he believed, to engage in speculative inquiry whose objects are far more precise and universal than anything we meet on a daily basis. When we engage in the purest philosophy, we are in communication with a different sort of network – the network of the ideas of God, more or less – and our capacity is no longer limited by our earthly ties. This is where some sort of dualism needs to make an appearance it seems, if not between body and spirit then at least between the temporal and the eternal. In this respect, according to Aristotle, we might be qualitatively different from typewriters.

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Brave New World

Reading Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (Viking, 2016).

Kelly is one of the founding editors of Wired, and this book is about the promise of emerging technologies to, well, shape our future. A paragraph early in the book exhibits its general vibe:

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is the moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh, to have been alive and well back then!”

I know: sort of exhausting, all that wide-eyed enthusiasm. Kelly’s book is big on new technological opportunities, and short on any informed historical consciousness, let alone any awareness of the ever-widening gap between the rich people poking at their jeejahs and the poor people hunting for potable water. It is full-on with bubble cars, jet packs, and machines that go “ping.”

But, for all that, it is an insightful book, and he makes a compelling case for some bright potential. The future he imagines is relentlessly Heraclitean, with endless opportunities for becoming, cognifying, flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, interacting, tracking, questioning, and beginning (these, in fact, are the chapter titles). If all goes to plan, we won’t be able to step anywhere twice, since by then it will have been uploaded into some cloud or other. (Speaking of which, where is our Aristophanes, with all this talk of clouds?) It’s hard for me not to play the part of the cynic, but at the same time Kelly is surely right that – at least with regard to interconnectedness and information – our time is unprecedented, and some tremendously cool things should be happening in the near future.

And, along with them, some pretty ghastly things. At one point Kelly describes computers that will gaze back upon us, watching our eyes and faces, and making adjustments for what we’re feeling – speed up boring movies, divert us to more entertaining images, etc. I can only hope there will be big “DISABLE” buttons. But even then, one wonders about the impact of such paternalist techs on broader populations, and one shudders. Is it too old-fogey of me to believe that some of the most rewarding lessons come along with being bored, uncomfortable, offended, incredulous? The problem with having super-smart machines tailoring our realities according to our wishes is that we, for the most part, wish like idiots.

Technology changes; human problems respond in Darwinian fashion, mutating and morphing into new ones, adapted to the new environment. Tech utopias are just as “nowhere” as old-fashioned utopias. But technology does bring real changes, and many of them are quite good – consider mortality rates, medicine, policy planning, and so on. The living conditions among the non-poor are better than they’ve ever been, by any objective measure, and the percentage of those of us who are poor is the lowest it’s been in at least two centuries – and probably much longer. For all this, we have technology to thank, in large part. Once our human problems advance beyond the stage of “trying to reach adulthood without dying from disease, starvation, or butchery,” we’re in a pretty good spot, despite the cavils of the philosophers. Trying to deal with the spiritual impact of the advances of technology is, by definition, a first-world problem.

I’ll grant, though, that calling the advance of technology a “first-world problem” doesn’t turn it into nothing. Some advances in technology bring rather sizable problems in their wake – consider the enormous human cost of the industrial revolution. That cost was eventually reduced, but only through the resistance of unions and both violent and political action. In this way, technological advance has to be shaped by human needs, desires, and preferences. A small-scale and more recent example of this was the failed introduction of Google Glass.

"Once I'm connected, we should be able to see each other."

By Matt Percival, from Cartoonstock.com

Kelly mentions this failure in passing, and optimistically thinks the public hatred of the thing was only a matter of clunky design. But I don’t think that was the problem; if anything, it was the opposite. The problem was that using the thing violated a social space: people hated the idea of other people looking as if they were in a public space – standing in line, looking out a window – while in fact immersed in web activity. When you are staring at a glowing screen, I know what you’re doing; when you’re google-glassing, I’m liable to make a mistake, and that’s just irritating. You’re not following public conventions, and I feel like ripping that stupid thing off your stupid face. (Sorry; got a little out of hand there.) Maybe conventions about the social space will change, but maybe they won’t, and the idea of Google Glass will just go to the grave as a seemingly great idea that for whatever reason just didn’t take.

This is the largest consideration missing from Kelly’s book – the friction of tech rubbing against human needs. He seems to think technology is an obedient genie, granting our every wish. Of course, the relationship is much trickier than that, and it’s not always a happy one. The wisdom in tech advance is never greater than our own wisdom, which is never all that great. Technology, we might say, is a genie with a drunken master.

Posted in Books, Machines / gadgets / technology / games | 5 Comments

Reality of ideas, again: the navel-gazing perspective

What is an idea? On the one hand, it is tempting to say that there can be no explanation without appeal to a special intensional dimension, a protected pocket of our existence that holds meanings. After all, we think ideas; we cannot see them, weigh them, or bat them over the fence. Ideas are intrinsically inward, like any element of consciousness.

But on the other hand, ideas are bound up with what we would do or say under their influence. Anything that makes no difference isn’t anything. An idea, when entertained, might be seen as a policy proposal: from here on out, let’s talk and act as if X were true. And, especially when it comes to philosophical ideas, how we talk is the principal way in which ideas change us: “Now that I embrace materialism, I shall say this about religion, and that about free will,” and so on. It may not make any difference as to where I buy my gas or how often I exercise. Perhaps that is what makes an idea metaphysical – it only affects how I talk.

I know this is thoroughly behaviorist, understanding ideas only as the ways in which they are evidenced in observable behavior. But I’m drawn to it – meaning I am continually brought back to make more words about it (that is, about behaviorism, or Marx-ish pragmatism). But why should I be making these words as opposed to others? Why am I not compelled to make other words, words associated with idealism, for example (in fact, wasn’t I compelled to make those words only a couple of months ago?)? Most of the words I make are made here in the Canyon Road Institute for Humanistic Studies, and they don’t travel far beyond its walls, and a few blog readers, at most. It’s hard to believe that I’m making sets of words (idealism, behaviorism) for any social reasons. I could just as well be making words about centaurs or pirate ships. (And sometimes I do!)

The obvious answer is that I’m making these words because they matter to me. I’m interested in them, and they are meaningful and important to me. And these are all internal metrics: once again, pockets of meaningfulness. But I can ask again: why are they meaningful? What difference do they really make in my life, beyond how I type?

Perhaps they matter for social reasons after all. For I have several larger projects and larger ambitions – books and such – and these projects have broader social impact, and affect how people behave toward me and what they say about me. (Or this is one of my lifestyle-sustaining delusions, at any rate.) These ideas of idealism and behaviorism end up being proposals for what words I will make in these larger projects. So, in short, I’m trying to make myself into a certain sort of publically-known intellectual, and stewing over what words to make affects my success in this project. It’s difficult to make this more concrete without advertising the utter silliness of it all. “If I latch onto the behaviorist proposal, I shall be invited to swanky materialist parties on the east and west coasts; if I embrace the idealist proposal, I’ll get to travel to Europe and give talks at old, stony universities.” I know, this isn’t at all right, and it isn’t even remotely plausible, but something like it captures the absurd motivational structure leading to my making of words. These policy decisions about word production affect which groups I get to hang with, or at least how I am placed in other people’s minds. If this isn’t what drives me, what is?

Well, here’s a crazy idea. What if I simply want to understand what is true? Or, short of that, what I think? What if I’m not as ridiculous as the last paragraph suggests, and I just want to try to assemble my knowledge and experience and feelings into a vaguely coherent perspective? I write and post because I’ve found that this is a good way of exploring what I think; more details, problems, and questions emerge from this quasi-public process than if I were to just stare off into space and think.

Is there some behaviorist account of why I should want to “understand what is true”? I’m sure there is; but I suspect it will take me back to the swanky-party/stony-castle aspirations of two paragraphs ago, and they still seem to me ill-fitting and silly. Maybe there isn’t any actual goal that motivates me, and I’m only habituated (through decades of conditioning) to act as if I care about philosophical truth? My schooling brainwashed me into thinking that typing words in a lonely shed is a meaningful activity? Well, that’s possible, I suppose, though (again) ill-fitting and silly. It seems to me more plausible to take this “concern for truth” just as it appears. If behaviorism has difficulty making sense of it, then perhaps I am learning of the shortcomings of behaviorism. Perhaps there really are ideas, and they really are meaningful, in ways other than how they cash out in observable behavior. How about that as a proposal?

Posted in Items of the academy / learning, Metaphysical musings, This & that in the life of CH, Uncategorized | 1 Comment