Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Forbidden Blog Post #1

Ted Kaczynski was totally fucking insane.

This is not a marginal proposition, I admit. He was also, as it happens, totally brilliant. My brief, painful stint as a math graduate student happened to be the year that Kaczynski's manifesto was published in the New York Times; when he was subsequently captured, his c.v. was circulated around my department. Though he had suddenly retired from his post at Berkeley in 1967, his work as a grad student and a professor before that had been, strictly mathematically speaking, rather notable.

The next time I encountered the idea that Kaczynski was a brilliant man who had just snapped was reading an article published in Wired Magazine in 2000. It contained this quote from Kaczynski's manifesto:

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can't make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines....On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained....Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity....Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race....Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them "sublimate" their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.
Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, proposed in that article that man (in his current, mostly biological form) was superfluous to the future in which Post-Humans were likely to arise.

This same idea popped back into my immediate consciousness when I was writing about Technological Singularities a couple of weeks ago. Lost in the fact that Ted Kaczynski was a psychotic murderer is the fact that, while there's no such thing as consensus on the matter, a lot of people who think about the future tend to think it will look not unlike the picture Kaczynski was drawing. At some point the future Unabomber must have hit a realization of the future and what it would be like for our species that was so exquisite in its horror that it pushed him over the edge, making him decide that any action taken to prevent it was justified.

I thought of this again this week as our president, Mr. Binary Opposition himself, issued the first (and most likely only) veto of his presidency in banning government funding of stem cell research. George W. clearly has no idea why he actually opposes stem cell research--it's impossible to parse a logical argument out of his rationale--but this is a rare case where I actually feel some sympathy for the guy. He's already lost this fight--it was lost when man emerged from the muck with big brains and opposable thumbs. Man will rush forward in His evolution as a species regardless of vetoes or pipe bombs, because that is what He does. A lot of good can be done for a lot of people who are currently suffering a lot of pain via research with stem cells, and the Right Wing Conservative Christian valuation of hypothetical blastocysts over actual living, suffering people who live in the world is a bizarre, twisted, and anti-human view of the world. But at the same time, this is one more step along the path of re-engineering the selves that humans will be in the future. Sometimes it seems like it might be a good idea to stop and think about that path, because the potential of it has scared the living crap out of a lot of very smart people.

Next: More of the Forbidden!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

On Blogging

The Pew study on bloggers is out, and I have to say I find it particularly...un...illuminating. It turns out half of American bloggers...are. Men. The median age is 30. 99% of everybody writes some sort of vaguely personal narrative that only their friends read. Check. Check. And check.

Some time ago whilst I was having one of those spruce-up-the-blog moments, I decided that OaO is a philosophy blog, and went to some blog-cataloging sites and entered it as such. Every now and then, according to the site meter graphically represented at the right, somebody clicks through one of these links and arrives here (begging the question, who has a philosophical question that can only be answered by surfing through blogs?). This, along with the occassional click-through I get from folks who find me because I'm listed as an Amazon employee in the blog kept by the Amazon Web Services evangelist (which, yes, is his actual job title), is the only time anybody that I don't know (where "know" appears in pomo-indicative italics because these days it extends to people I have neither actually met nor conversed with directly. Love this modern age in which we live. No, really. Do it. DO IT!) happens by The Odds Are One.

Sometimes I think I should actually blog about, you know, something, because blogging seems to violate all rules of narrative. Or flow. Or something. Sometimes I think I'm getting there. But I never quite do.

Next: Philosophy!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Forbidden Blog

I thought I'd continue the meme of writing about bat-shit insane dreams started (most recently) by Mita a few days back (her blog, This Particular Web, quietly joined the Hermeneutic Blog Circle a couple of weeks ago, so this will serve as an overdue welcome. If you haven't read her post about talking dumpsters, you haven' Or lived. Or something). Some time early this morning I had a dream that seems blog-worthy in its out-there-ness.

Jos shows up in my dreams from time to time, in a very Six Feet Under kind of way. I had one dream a couple of months ago where I was hiking in Swansea and had become lost. I stopped to look at some kind of map that was there at the side of the road, and I heard someone from behind me say, "Lost, Pablo?" (Pablo being what he used to call me), I turned around and it was he. He walked me down the hill and, before leaving me on some kind of Swansea public beach, told me a bunch of things which at the time seemed very important, but which I couldn't of course remember when I woke up. Thus, when he showed up in my dream last night I tried very hard to pay attention to what he was saying.

So, the dream: I'm in Pacific Place, which is a shopping mall in downtown Seattle, and somebody who looks like Jos comes off the down escalator. I walk up to him and at first I'm not sure it looks quite like him; "Jos?" I say, "is that you?" The person says something to the effect of, "No, but hold on a minute," and I look at him again and now he definitely looks like Jos. We start to walk towards some store and I'm trying to pay close attention to what he's saying, but the only thing I can remember now is this snippet of conversation:

Jos: Listen, Pablo, you have to stop what you're doing. You're going to destroy humanity.
Me: What, you mean with the things I am blogging about?
Jos: Yes.

This dream ends when Jos hands me a pipe containing what he explains are the dregs of things smoked by the people on his side (the implication being that the actual substances themselves would be way too much for the living) (please hold your snickering until the end, thank you very much). I partake of his mysterious herbs and immediately wake up. End of dream.

I'll leave the commentary to you. Two things are clear, though:

a) I seem to have failed to take his advice, and
b) You are now reading The Forbidden Blog.

You have been warned.

Next: Commentary!

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Event Horizon of Time

Emery drew my attention to this Wiki article about (the) Technological Singularity--an imagined point in the (relatively near) future where the technology of man starts to advance so far, so fast, that all current prognostications of the future beyond it are utterly useless. Since we've lately been talking about paradigm shifts (a concept closely linked) and humanity's certain doom that lies just around the next corner (okay, not the next corner...but definitely the corner after that....), I thought it merited a paragraph or seven of rumination.

The Technological Singularity purports to be the point at which the first posthumans appear, at which point human progress takes off so incredibly rapidly that our current paradigms of being and progress become worthless, such that we can't "see" beyond it. In this sense it's like a black hole singularity, so dense that no information of any kind can escape (well, except for tiny little bit of radiation from the edge of event horizon that's able to escape by using the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Thank you, Stephen Hawking)--only instead of space from whence no information can escape, it's time.

Okay, fine, we're all already cyborgs; it's the freaking future, of course no information is escaping it; we've already seen this sort of thing in Terminator 2: Judgment Day--not that these aren't interesting critiques, but you don't read OaO to get critiques you can read elsewhere (you read OaO because you went to college with me, are one of my parents, are married to me, don't own an iPod, or because you're lost. Doy). I, too, think the AI future is relatively near at hand (no, really this time), if only because in the last ten years or so we've discovered that conscious intelligence acts lot less like a computer program (platform + set of instructions) and more like an anthill (a collection of individually "mindless" actors working in concert). It does seem, however, like the Technological Singularity is remarkably Humanity-Right-Now-Centric. If one acknowledges that the folks of the 19th century couldn't possibly imagine what was going to happen once we got computers, and the pre-writing tribes of man couldn't envision a life post-printing-press, one has gotta recognize that Technological Singularities are happening all the freaking time.

The metaphor of the black hole is another possible explanation of why the future holding certain doom for humanity seems to be such a pervasive meme. The idea that it too is an incredibly dense singularity from which no information can emerge goes a long way towards explaining why we as a population might happen to feel such visceral dread about our prospects in it.

What's also interesting in the Wiki article is the charting of the general acceleration of Man, His major advances, and His technology. The evolutionary leaps are happening fast and furious now; the things that took years today will take nanoseconds in the future, at least if this graph is any indication. My favorite koan on this topic goes like this: imagine the technology of, say, the Athenians versus the Romans a thousand years later. Unless you're an historian, you probably think of them as pretty similar in their technology. The Romans were, in fact, much more advanced--they had plumbing, aqueducts, and a radically advanced military, but compared to nuclear power and several million transistors on a chip less than an inch square, there's not that much technological difference between the two civilizations in the mind of the average person of today. Now think of the person two thousand years hence (or only two hundred?) whose technology is so advanced that he or she very roughly equates the technology of the present day with the technology of 1000 A.D. Can't imagine that? Me neither.

Next: That was only five paragraphs!
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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Network is the Computer

A little bit of semi-dismissive hype for the emerging Browser-Based OS'es appears in Slate this week. The author's major objection--users won't want to store their data on remote servers because they won't trust it--I find to be half irrelevant (as we maintain here at OaO, there are two types of data in the world: encrypted and world-readable) and half mutable (trust in product x equals good experience plus time). My current objection to the OS-in-a-browser (Slate reviews YouOS, I've also checked out Goowy) is that, on the client side, it is slower than dirt and keeps hanging my browser. At least for the time being this undermines the mythical touchstone of the (also, thus far mythical) Google PC--it'll be fast because it's running on the servers at Google. If the applications, written mostly in JavaScript and connecting over a DSL or even T1 pipe, can't keep up, it doesn't really matter how fast the underlying servers are.

I expect this problem to get solved in some meaningful way, because I too think the concept of the browser OS is just too freaking yummy. Being able to work on "your" desktop anywhere you can find a browser, much like the advent of web-based email ten years ago, has a lot of appeal; the current OS-specific attempts to allow you to work on your desktop machine remotely are slow, cumbersome, and prone to rather enormous security holes. Also, worrying about the amount of hard-drive space you need and backing up your own data against a crash is an enormous pain and off-shoring that problem to Google or YouOS seems...better. On the other hand, the Thin Client machine has supposedly been coming soon to a home near you for a long time, and we've yet to see it. This revolution, like the coming Web Service/Web 2.0 insurgency I keep heralding, still requires some technology changes. I'm not sure if it's necessarily a super-fast broadband connection in every home so much as something small that changes the perspective of the multitudes out there. Today 90% of the computer users out there think of their computer as a machine that runs Windows, and Windows in turn runs things on their computer. So what has to happen to make users think of a computer as something that runs a browser instead? And would this be a thing good or bad?

Next: Dirt! Is it really that slow?
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