Sunday, December 30, 2007

Reasonable Radical

Finally I figured out what I really do. I'm a de-mystic.
--Richard St. John, Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky and Rich

I love everything technical and obscure. I just hate the fact that it's obscure. I think of the 20th century as the Sheet Metal Age, when everything's true insides were enclosed in tin shells, enameled and chromed, and sculpted to look like what they weren't-- or to look like nothing much, so long as it's not what they are. I feel about the inner workings of things like I do about literacy. We're supposed to be familiar with the world we're walking around in. Not just familiar but able to grab hold and adjust. Otherwise we would be like that character of dystopian horror, The Consumer. I also love psychology and politics. I want to know why people act oblivious, why they put up with not knowing, not having control. But also what might be possible and how.

So I developed a habit of joining discussion groups of disaffected nerds like myself, hoping, you know, that we would figure it all out and reform the world.

After a while I noticed that disaffected nerds seem to fall into two categories. The first are the grouchy sticks- in- the- mud. These people seem to carry an enormous kit of reasons why it'll never work and it ain't gonna happen. Sometimes they have particular detailed scenarios of how the world is going to go to hell. You know, that plan will never work because the Mafia will blow you up with nukes before you get started. You may wonder why the grouches stick around in groups of reformer wannabees. I wondered that.

The other type is the person who has a shining radical idea that, if only people would embrace it, would solve all our problems. But the radical never seems able to convincingly explain his ideas or give them traction, and no amount of feedback, friendly or hostile, seems to draw him out in a satisfying way. He may be blissfully self-assured, or annoyed at how everyone misconstrues his points and fails to understand the logic. He may spend his time in detailed definitions of terms each more obscure and frustrating than the last. But he's in his world and it seems far away.

(There's a third type: polite, well- spoken, interested in things, but seemingly not obsessed with knowing everything and changing everything at once. How can anyone be like that?)

I decided that if I could, I would like to be a "reasonable radical." I want to learn about new ways of thinking that cut through confusion and show simplicity at the heart of things, and yet be able to attach these ideas to points that matter, and be able to talk about them in a sensible way, without having to hole up in an obscure terminology, and without having to shield my eyes from parts of reality that spoil the story.

By radical I don't mean leftist, but just "at the root." Any idea that undercuts everything and proposes a different foundation. Here are some of my favorites:
  • All living things and people are just machines.
  • Our minds are just like running computer programs.
  • We are clouds of matter and energy flowing according to differential equations.
  • There is no externally-defined right and wrong.
  • Money is the neurotransmitter of value in the world.
The "radical" part of my ideal is to be able to take ideas like that and admit their truth, to be committed to truth, grit the teeth and sweep away superstition. There are ideas that can serve as metaphors for everything, but more than metaphors, they are thoroughly true for everything, and it's important to be able to follow an idea to that point and look at the world seriously from a new perspective. Sometimes radical ideas have radical applications, but sometimes having faced up to an idea mainly serves as a reminder of fuzzy or fearful ideas you had before you faced it, in case you run across their kind again.

But the point isn't just to be punched in the gut and set spinning, or to convert to a new religion. It's still the same world after a radical idea as it was before. The same things are real and true. A metaphor for everything is also a metaphor for nothing. Hopefully you'll be set to interesting rethinking of things you took for granted before.

The "reasonable" part is not to be overly impressed or thrown by radical ideas, while respecting their power and truth. Pulling out a radical idea to impress or snowblind people can be charlitanism or self-delusion. As far as I know the only immunization against that is to have picked up, handled and filed away a dozen radical ideas oneself. The thing to do with a radical idea is to try to see how it can help you, to compare the view through it to the view around it. But also, to separate the dizziness and flinching from the real issues. "Now that we know this is true, what do we have to do?"

I think the reflex to tie free- floating ideas back to the cold ground is what sticks- in- the- mud are really up to. They've just come to assume that's all you can do, or that such effronteries must be brought down with vengeance and in flames.

Between the people who won't take in any idea, and those who wear their one idea like a suit, there isn't much useful conversation. The adversarial model of ideas is boring.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Future Imperfect

Thinking about how things change together, not in isolation, and how, when thinking about future changes, one should sight on appropriate landmarks to gain perspective, reminded me of the example in the opening paragraphs of David Friedman's Future Imperfect (note: a twenty-chapter book draft in a single html file!):
I recently attended an event where the guest speaker was a cabinet member. In conversation afterwards, the subject of long term petroleum supplies came up. He warned that at some point, perhaps a century or so in the future, someone would put his key in his car's ignition, turn it, and nothing would happen–because there would be no more gasoline.

What shocked me was not his ignorance of the economics of depletable resources--if we ever run out of gasoline it will be a long slow process of steadily rising prices, not a sudden surprise--but the astonishing conservatism of his view of the future. It was as if a similar official, a hundred years earlier, had warned that sometime around the year 2000 we were going to open the door of the carriage house only to find that the horses had starved to death for want of hay. I do not know what the world will be like a century hence. But it is not likely to be a place where the process of getting from here to there begins by putting a key in an ignition, turning it, and starting an internal combustion engine burning gasoline.
Citing Future Imperfect is enough for one post. His subject is close to mine here:
This book is about technological change, its consequences and how to deal with them. In this chapter I briefly survey the technologies. In the next I discuss how to adjust our lives and institutions to their consequences.

I am not a prophet; any one of the technologies I discuss may turn out to be a wet firecracker. It only takes one that does not to remake the world. Looking at some candidates will make us a little better prepared if one of those revolutions happens. Perhaps more important, after we have thought about how to adapt to any of ten possible revolutions, we will at least have a head start when the eleventh drops on us out of the blue.
David Friedman is one writer who deliberately applies perspective.

Speaking of sighting and citing: how is it that sounding, as in water depth measurement, was called that long before the invention of sonar? (The phrase "sound out" was derived from sounding rather than the other way around.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Warmup: "We are as gods..."

Stewart Brand famously opened the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog with these words:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory--as via government, big business, formal education, church--has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing--power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.
Brand says in the Winter 1998 Whole Earth Review:
Credit where it's due: I stole the line. Page one, chapter one of A Runaway World? by British anthropologist Edmund Leach (Oxford, 1968) begins:
Men have become like gods. Isn't it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid. Why should this be? How might these fears be resolved?
But at some point Leach continues,
We simply must take charge of our own fate. We must somehow see to it that the decisions which have long-term consequences are taken by men who understand what they are doing and not by bewildered amateurs.
Amateurs, of course, being exactly who Brand wanted to empower.

(I learned of the Brand-Leach connection in the excellent book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, by John Markoff (p. 155))

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday, October 21, 2007

about ways of thinking about the future

I follow or take part in lots of discussions of the future, and besides being keen on all the juicy futurific topics themselves, I always find myself noticing the ways people think about the future, and wondering, how should we think about it?

For instance (and because I'm self-conscious about this): what do I even mean by "the future?" People are always thinking about the future: tonight's dinner, a coat of paint for the house, college for the kids... Everything's about the future; what sense making it a separate topic? What's up with treating it like something new?

So one way to think about "the future" is skepticism at the term. What assumptions is someone smuggling in under such a generality? Will they use it to excuse themselves from common sense in some way? On the other hand I'm being slightly disingenuous and dramatic because of course I think there's a Future.

Turning around now, my instinctive response to any two-sentence dismissal or debunking of a popular belief or concept, is to wonder how the supposed debunking can be used to clarify just what the wisdom in the popular wisdom is, so:

The difference between The Future and tonight's dinner is that people have planned a lot of dinners before. The Future is what's unprecedented, and not just the random exact placement of an almond sliver on a green bean, but, well there's an html thingie for a Spanish Inquisition of things like this:
  • unprecidented--at least to most people
  • coming soon to a theater near you
  • important--at least to a lot of us
  • non-random and possible to think about in useful chunks
I have seen gung-ho futurists, budding technocrats out to finally rid us of things I hold dear, and people who think that my favorite improvements will destroy everything they hold dear. Some people focus on an ironic harm to the exclusion of everyday good. People fret over piecemeal scenarios like, "What happens when everyone lives to 200 but retires at 65?" There's a particular form of optimism disguised as skepticism, as in, "I know why that's never going to happen." A lot of questions aren't so much about the future as let back out of the box by thinking about it. If everything is up for grabs, then, What does it all mean!?

Do you know the answer to that one? It doesn't do to just dismiss all the crazies and worriers-- especially if you think that anyone who isn't worried isn't paying attention. Change really seems to be happening faster, while our lifetimes are getting longer, so that more times more is being stuffed into our brains. "The future" seems to be defined by what's difficult to think about. Sometimes it's a demon who carefully tends our buried muddles until they sprout in our front yards.

I want to know, how can we think about this stuff without going nuts? In particular, are there ways to get handles on things to turn them for the better, in some qualitative way better than just building better mousetraps and bandaids, greasing the skids?

For that matter, what kind of future counts as okay, worth working toward, sufficiently grand? How can it be possible for people to see the future as something other than baffling, scary and alienating? One metaphor (getting slightly ahead of myself) is of continually re-packing for the Mayflower-- what's worth keeping and can be packed in a trunk? Can we take seeds?

I collected lists of ideas, both fallacious and hopeful, in the backs of a couple notebooks, enough to write about for at least a month. Time to dig em up and air em out.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Robot Takeover Or Takeunder?

In the previous post I said that the view that writing is an old hybrid AI might have some bearing on whether robots take over, by which I meant, get better and better until they surpass us and become the main stream of civilization and history.

One optimistic view is that if AI keeps being designed as extensions to our minds, prostheses, implants or upgrades to our brains, then we, or "we," will stay in the driver's seat along whatever ride intelligence takes in the future. We could call this "takeunder." (Notice how "natural" the driver's seat analogy seems, even though a driver's seat is essentially a prosthetic fitting? Similar earlier analogies: in the saddle, at the reins.)

So, the idea that literature is a hybrid AI ("there, that wasn't so painful, was it?"), and the analogy between literature and Google+web, are examples of takeunder ... but what they prove about the future is hard to say.

I think writing is at least an example of how it could go well, or how it could be made to go well. Just think how we take art and writing-- information media external to our brains-- and call them "the humanities." That's a picture of what it could mean to be at home in cyberspace (& of course having a picture is reassuring). On the other hand, we're not guaranteed to have the sense, necessary understanding, foresight, style or grace to go that way.

Oh good, this gives me a seque into The Great Good Place.

Postscript: Above "I say," "We remember the things we've read as if [books were] a way to talk to those people again." It's books that talked to, and were talked to by, those people. We call them our memories of our past, but it's books' memories, held for us. The authors talked to books, pretending to talk to an audience, and the books talk to us, pretending to be the authors. The arts of authors creating simulations of themselves, and of readers believing the simulations, are a symbiosis-- cybernesis?-- that has evolved and is evolving over time.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Before Google there was Grep

I think that Google really is an AI, or at least 1/3 of a hybrid AI whose other two thirds are people and writing.

You type a question into a keyboard and so often you get the answer. That was the dream of AI back in the 1960s, and I find it strange that people don't appreciate that we've reached that milestone. People are jaded because they understand how it works. The fact that we thought the problem was so much harder passes unnoticed.

Before Google and the web there were books. People plus books formed a similar hybrid AI that was just slower. We all grew up with literature. The funny thing about it is that we don't think of it as an AI. We remember the things we've read as if all of history, science, art, etc. happened to us, as if we personally knew the people involved, and books are just a way of reminding ourselves of the details we've forgotten, a way to talk to those people again. Human culture has grown accustomed to literature and we are raised as children to think of this AI as part of ourselves.

I used to think this way about grep(*) before there was Google. I was amazed how much trouble people would want to go to to organize things in computer systems, when so often just grepping for a string(**) would find you the thing you wanted. (Funny how similar grep's and Google's names are.)

Google and grep are like the 80/20 solutions that people talk about, only it's 80% of the results with only 2% of the effort.

The power is in the ability to name things. Before computers and the web, indexing, storing and retrieving were hard; now they've become trivial compared to the work of forming a question. I think we haven't intuitively caught up with how much of explicit intelligence is covered by those operations.

And yet it's not that Google is an unacknowledged rival intelligence. Just as books are our heritage, we own the web and Google. It is "our" intelligence. Google is a bunch of glial cells (another g word!), a shepherd to our stuff. If Google were to disappear or misbehave, we would just have to build another.

So, we are strangely arrogant, or rightly so, or both. Maybe this is what it means to be an executive, or the conscious patina on a mind, or a monarch...a titular head. This could be relevant to the question of whether robots will take over, or maybe it's not.

(*) grep is the Unix command that searches for strings, or string patterns (**), within a file or collection of files on a computer.

(**) Oh yeah, a "string" means a word, a name, a phrase--a sequence of typed characters. Patterns mean this "or" that, "anything containing this", "anthing that starts with this," etc. Suddenly I'm self-conscious about thinking of words as sequences of bytes.

Infest Wisely

Infest Wisely is a science-fiction movie whose seven episodes are being posted as they are developed. It seems to be about technology that you install within yourself by swallowing things.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Welcome to the Future, Take your Time

This blog was created to give me a blogger identity so I could comment on another blog. A seemingly needless bother; but then, a dubious motivation. Blogocircular but not fully blogospherical.

I've often imagined blogging as a cautious extropian. In extropian terms, not necessarily wanting to hasten the singularity counts as cautious.