Wednesday, January 27. 2010
In some of our discussions on pantheism, Kenny pointed out that some of environmentalism is really a repressed desire to return to a simpler way of life. Lauren also sent on an article that described how some fans of Avatar were actually suffering from depression after seeing the movie, because they felt like their own lives could never have the beautiful richness and simplicity of the Na'vi in the film.
I have some mixed reactions to this sort of back-to-the-land nostalgia for a simple way of life. As with much nostalgia for the past, it is a longing for something that never existed in the first place. David McCullough made this clear in a recent lecture: "There never was a simpler time. The colonists in the 1700's needed to know a vast array of skills to survive." The perils that threatened their very lives – disease, weather, wild animals, Indian raids – made their lives chaotic, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and anything but simple. They had to work extremely hard to enjoy even the most meager of comforts. Technology, it turns out, removes complexity as much as it generates it.
What people are longing for is not simplicity per se, but connection to something that feels real and significant. A side effect of our recent technological advances is that it is vastly more possible to live without direct interaction with a community of people. Our economic transactions are automated and anonymous; we hardly ever know the person who sells us our food and clothing, much less the person who made them. We are often far removed from the people who benefit from our own work; lots of corporate worker-bees spend their entire careers without ever meeting a customer. Our entertainments used to be primarily social – singing, dancing, playing music, playing games were all done with other people. Now all those things can be done alone, and usually are. The net result is we feel supremely disconnected from everything in our world. Our actions have little visible purpose, our roles are interchangeable, our human interactions shallow and unremarkable.
So, what the homesteader achieves, and the rest of us often lack, is a tangible and immediate relationship to their environment. If you build your own house, make your own clothes, grow your own food, and even create your own entertainments, you can literally surround yourself in the fruits of your labor. You literally eat, sleep, and breathe your accomplishments. And if you trade the products of your labor with others, you have the satisfaction of knowing your customers, since they are usually your neighbors. Pride in craftsmanship takes on huge significance when your family, friends, and community are counting on the quality of your work.
Of course, even a modern American can experience all these things. Even a cube-dweller can take pride in his code. It's just that the "simpler" life makes it all so much more tangible, concrete, and inescapable. The homesteader lives in the knowledge that everything they do matters, both to themselves and the people they love. We don't need to be rescued from complexity -- just complacency.
Wednesday, January 13. 2010
To all those who have provided your comments over the months and years -- thank you!
To all those who have tried to provide their comments, and failed because the stupid captcha features weren't working correctly -- my humblest apologies. I turned on the captchas because I was getting overrun by comment spam, but only later learned I was losing legitimate comments.
I have made some adjustments to the anti-spam features that I hope will resolve the difficulties some of you have had in posting comments. Please feel free to write to me at georg [[[at]]] selfknowledge [[[dot]]] org if you continue to have problems posting. If you forward your comments to me I am happy to post them, and even happier to help troubleshoot the issue so I never have to apologize for my blogging software again.
Saturday, December 27. 2008
I drove the same VW Golf for about thirteen years. When I finally broke down (only slightly ahead of the car) and bought a brand-new car, I found myself marveling at advances in features that others had already long ago accepted as normal and had passed into unconsciousness. Cup holders – neat! An interior button to pop the trunk – how cool is that! Power windows – well, I had seen those before, of course, but now they are in my car! It's mildly embarrassing to find yourself geeked out over features that are over a decade old. It's like listening to an octogenarian effuse over the miracle of e-mail. But my tech-savvy is usually overpowered by my sense of thrift. I might buy a state of the art digital camera, but then I keep it for ten years.
So, I shouldn't be surprised that I once again find myself surrounded by amazing features that are old news:
Thursday, December 4. 2008
"Science is culture." So says Seed Magazine on its cover. A friend of mine gave me a subscription to Seed, though I am only vaguely aware of why. Maybe it was because he knew I was a scientist as well as a spiritual seeker, and he was hoping that a regular dose of rationality would somehow sway me to enlightened agnosticism.
Seed is a curious kind of magazine. It's hard to know who, exactly, it is trying to appeal to. There are some features that clearly are appealing to the scientists themselves -- the rank and file bench workers and post-docs slaving away, with little more than their own high self-regard to comfort them. They have a regular feature, "Workbench," which is just a picture of some scientist's work space -- a desk or office or cube or laboratory -- with little annotations about the pictures and tchockas and books and papers that fill the space. I liked that, because that shows a lot of insight into what the lives of these people are like. Scientists spend a lot of time at the desk, and the view from that desk is as good a symbol as any of the monk-like existence that they lead. I was reminded of the movie Into Great Silence, a documentary about French Trappist monks, and the long shots they would take of snowy scenes outside a monk's cell. The scene that monk would look at for the rest of his life. It has beauty in it, but a bleak kind of beauty, and not what I would call hope.
I think that's part of the problem with Seed. In style it mimics other magazines of the mega-cool future, especially Wired. It has the same trippy two-page color spreads with call-out quotes from an article, something that is supposed to be provocative and compelling. The layout sometimes has the crazy collage quality of Wired, with colorful exploding graphs and maps. But then lapses just as suddenly into the clean staidness of a 1970's Scientific American. Clearly it wants to taken more seriously than billowy lightweights like Popular Science or Psychology Today. But the content falls into this weird space, more technical than puff-piece but not nearly the page length to sustain really complex content, like you would see in Scientific American. And it has social issues on its mind, and it's so serious about its seriousness about social issues that you come away with no other thought than, "Boy, do those guys take themselves seriously." None of the featured scientists smile. Well, maybe in a long shot you might see a smug smirk in the distance. A few non-Caucasian women venture real smiles, but the North American men and women . . . well, they are just too important to be caught smiling.
So the overall tone is . . . cold. Add to it the fact that it's very light on advertising -- just a smattering of full-page officious feel-good propaganda from big pharmas and big oil companies and one or two eco-cable channels. Cold, cold, cold. If the purpose of this magazine is as evangelical as it seems, to make science and scientists look more important and influential and cool . . . Well, they seem to have missed entirely on the "cool" part. The primary missing ingredient is joy. Wired Magazine explodes with enthusiasm, because its guiding ethic is capitalistic and optimistic. The people featured in it tend to have a wild gleam in their eyes, because they're planning on making a few million dollars in their twenties and getting laid tonight, and besides they are having the time of their lives, and, oh yeah, I guess the world will benefit from this cool stuff we're doing. By contrast, the people in Seed look . . . Sad? Bored? They look like people who wish other people took them more seriously. And so, of course, we don't.
Friday, November 7. 2008
When some new progress is made in society, science, or technology, there is usually a lot of fanfare around it. People cheer, people "wow!", people get happy. But the truest measure of progress being absorbed into the society is when it loses the "wow" -- when it becomes completely normal and accepted and utterly taken for granted. And because it becomes quickly taken for granted, people often have the sense no progress is being made at all.
We're used to seeing this in technology all the time. Technologies that happened in the previous generation -- commercial air travel, space flight, central heating and air conditioning -- are not even thought of as "technological breakthroughs" in our consciousness. Even most technologies that emerged in our own lifetimes are utterly taken for granted. I remember when I was six years old, a salesman came to our house to give a demonstration of an amazing device called a microwave oven. That was a brand new consumer item in my lifetime. When was the last time you heard someone say, "God, aren't microwaves great!" I had lost all consciousness of their greatness until I lived in an apartment in Houston that didn't have one. (Apparently the restaurant scene in downtown Houston was so great that no one ever ate at home.) For some reason, boiling water on a stove for coffee or tea seemed primitive and strange . . . Even though I myself did that, in my own lifetime.
Computers! The desktop computer happened in my lifetime! The tool that I spend most of my waking hours in front of . . . In my lifetime! Nobody says anymore, "Gosh I love computers." Instead they say, "My %^&^&*/! computer hung again this morning . . . Could you resend that attachment?"
The Internet happened in my adult lifetime. I remember being in the workforce before email. You still occasionally hear people say, "Wow, I love the internet!" but only because of Google -- something that only happened in the last decade but is rapidly becoming routine. "Duh, why didn't you just google it?" is commonly heard in schools and offices.
Cell phones, iPods, cable TV, really good coffee . . . All very recent, all utterly taken for granted. They are so taken for granted, in fact, that many college students sit around (surrounded by cell phones and iPods and TVs and double-shot-lattes) thinking that the economic standard living for the average joe has decreased. "The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer" . . . And yet nearly everyone is enjoying enormous lifestyle boosts that couldn't have been foreseen even ten years ago.
Why do I bother cataloging all these changes? It's because of the way people have greeted the results of this election. The same sort of changes have been happening in our social sphere for the past sixty years, with steady regularity . . . And yet everyone in the whole world is standing around gawking, like we reinvented ourselves overnight, because, "holy shit, we just elected our first black president!" Yes, yes, yes, it's an important milestone, but why is everyone so surprised?
I was so gratified to hear an interview on NPR with singer/songwriter Janis Ian, who voiced exactly the same sentiment. "I hear people say, 'We haven't made any real social progress,' and I tell them, oh my gosh, you have no idea how far we've come. In my lifetime an outed homosexual could be put in an institution and lobotomized."
Does no one remember that a couple years ago the "inevitable" candidate for the Democratic nomination was a woman? We have been expecting history to happen for some time now.
I do not mean to trivialize the accomplishment of Obama's election. I know that civil rights, equality under the law, and broad acceptance into society has been a long hard journey for African Americans . . . and women . . . and homosexuals. It took a lot of work, perseverance, and sacrifice. But then again, so did the cell phone. And black leaders might be mildly disappointed when the children or grand-children of our generation hear of the first African-American president, and they don't say, "Wow." They will say: "So?" The ultimate victory will be won when it is completely forgotten.
Saturday, October 25. 2008
"What happened to the blog?" I'll tell you: I was overcome by my inner geek.
The stereotype is that geeks are social outcasts -- awkward, repulsive people who cultivate relationships with machines because they can't relate to other people. And yet, as technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of the popular culture and everyday life, people with technological skill are generally well-loved and respected. I have no lack of fans, at least among those who need my help.
And . . . There is always a need for technological help. Confessing to be a techno-geek at a party is almost as bad as being a doctor; people immediately start telling you about their computer problems and asking you to help them.
And the geeks do help. I've rarely found a geek who wasn't willing, nay, dying to share his expertise with others. That is, after all, how they constitute their self image. In our own minds, we are super-heroes. I am not exaggerating; we really do see ourselves as the specially-endowed saviors of humanity.
Consider the following scene:
Someone cries for help. Something awful has happened. Their world has turned upside down. Something very dear to them is terribly imperiled by a threat they do not understand, some kind of monster, and nobody around them can help. Others have been powerless to help. The victim is on the verge of despair. Suddenly, someone new arrives . . . Someone who is not afraid. "I've seen this sort of thing before, ma'am." Using powers that seem mystical and strange, the stranger banishes the evil, restores balance and peace to the world. The rescued victims are so thankful. "However can I repay you . . . ?"
This is a stock scene from Superman, yes? It is also what happens when you recover someone's email files from a corrupted hard disk. The thrill of power and purpose is probably about the same.
I used to think that the pull of being a superhero was only a small part of my motivation. Surely I have other motives -- personal profit, intellectual interest. But the drive to be the super-hero consistently trumps all other desires. I will give up billable hours, even my own free time, even food and sleep, all for the sake of hearing someone say, "You saved me. You're awesome."
No doubt lots of good comes from it. And yet, it is an unmanageable addiction, one that leads to over-commitment, poorly planned projects, and misplaced priorities. My boss once told a customer: "Don't ask Georg to do anything that's not on this list . . . Because saying 'please' to him is, like, kryptonite. He loses all willpower, he does whatever anyone says."
So . . . As I started making free time to pursue my writing, I was filling it instead with more technical heroics . . . This time unpaid technical heroics for my kids school. It all needed doing, and I'm glad I did it, but it's not what I set out to do. It's time to change that.
My thanks, as always, to the friends and colleagues who kept asking me, "Where's the blog?" Sadly, I need that. I need that a lot.
Tuesday, March 25. 2008
My critiques of Ray Kurzweil's vision of the future are not wholly honest. I have at lot at stake in these debates . . . and not merely because I want to believe my consciousness is more than mere computation. Kurzweil's vision of artificial intelligence has been eclipsed by his vision of human immortality. He really, truly honestly believes that human beings alive right now can become immortal, merely by living long enough for the accelerating scientific knowledge to eliminate death. Or, as he puts it, "Live Long Enough to Live Forever." And this is not merely idle speculation on his part; he is personally pursuing every radical intervention he can find to prolong his own life, including radically reducing his caloric intake and taking every conceivable supplement and pill he can find that even vaguely promises to extend life. He seems to be succeeding, too; he has already staved off impending diabetes and high cholesterol, and cuts a trim figure at age 60.
I give him a lot of credit for actively living his philosophy. He has, as Richard Rose would put it, "made himself a living laboratory," putting into action whatever his philosophy dictates. Not content to merely predict the future, he intends to meet it himself. And the guy has a long enough track record of technological brilliance to think he's got a shot at beating death. His credibility has me half-convinced. I don't know if he personally is going to make it, but it is not inconceivable to me that humanity might seriously tackle super-longevity within the next century or so.
You would think that this would be good news. "Hey, guess what? You might not have to die!" So why does the thought of physical immortality fill me with dread? Why, instead of cheering and planning for century upon century of life, does this feel more like the end of the world?
The most obvious answer is mere envy and laziness. I know for a fact that I will not be nearly as industrious as Kurzweil in his quest for immortality, and that I am doomed to die. Even the remote possibility that I could live forever if I worked hard at it twists a knife in my Puritanical, American work-ethic soul. For all of our biological imperative at self-preservation, it's so much easier to accept death as inevitable than to seriously consider escaping it. Damn his eyes for making me think about it.
But there is also something morally bent about this quest for immortality. It feels wrong. For starters, it cultivates a mind-set of supreme selfishness. "I will subjugate everything in the universe to the sole goal of preserving Me." Billionaires like Bill Gates, who might have spent their vast wealth helping millions of people, may instead squander their fortunes trying to enshrine themselves for the future. Personal immortality is the ultimate in Ambition, something that could suppress all manner of goodness in lieu of a mad, megalomaniacal dash to become a god. This is hardly a new theme, either. How many science fiction and fantasy novels have hinged on some super-villain committing world-destroying atrocities in an attempt to secure their immortality? Kurzweil is not Voldemort, but that's the general moral direction we're headed in: "To hell with other people â€“ let's save me, Me, ME!" It's rather like running for U.S. Presidency â€“ anyone who is able to achieve the office automatically disqualifies themselves from deserving it. We may wind up preserving the worst specimens of our species.
Nor does this spirit of selfishness end once immortality is achieved. An immortal would also have to be invulnerable for him to enjoy any peace, because otherwise they would perpetually dedicate themselves to preserving their eternal life. Even the remotest possibility of death suddenly becomes unbearable: the immortal wouldn't ride in a car, or ride a bicycle, or travel to places where foreign diseases may lurk, or associate with other humans who might murder you. The immortal would lock his doors, draw the blinds, and live out his eternal days in perpetual paranoia. Some life.
Even if we could somehow transfer our consciousness to indestructible, immortal machines (as Kurzweil predicts), I think the futurists have vastly underestimated our potential for ennui. After a few centuries, I think most people would be sick to death of themselves. Most religions do not merely promise perpetuity to the departed. They also offer transcendence â€“ the chance to leave behind their limited sense of themselves and find union with God. And eternal life without transcendence might be an altogether different sort of afterlife. It might, indeed, be hell.
Monday, March 24. 2008
Ray Kurzweil bugs me. The futurist has been predicting for the last decade or so that some lucky people alive today will see the day when machines become smarter than humans. Thanks to the exponential growth of computer processing power, he foresees the coming of "The Singularity" â€“ the point at which self-aware machines take over their own evolution and leave humans in the dust. Rather than seeing the rise of artificial intelligence as a dystopia, a la The Matrix or Terminator, Kurzweil believes that the explosion in intelligence will sweep up mankind, ultimately making us immortal when our consciousness can be transformed into non-biological media.
Seeing our eventual immortality in machines has always struck me as wrong â€“ both erroneous and wrong-headed. In his Are You a Robot? lecture, Kenny Felder explicitly argues against the notion that lots and lots of really fast computations will ultimately result in consciousness. Consciousness, he said, was a completely different phenomenon than computation, and a bazillion calculations per second does not translate into the conscious experience of life and thought. That position resonated with me philosophically, but I until recently I hadn't seen anyone else try to back up that concept with harder science.
In the latest issue of Wired Magazine, though, Mark Anderson does flesh out the current science that challenges the notion of singularity. I was gratified to see that he starts exactly where Kenny did: "This notion sweeps under the rug a messy philosophic problem: An algorithm is only a set of instructions, and even the most sophisticated machine executing the most elaborate instructions is still an unconscious automaton." But even setting that aside, he pointed out the scientific puzzles that could derail the notion of immanent AI:
None of this disproves Kurzweil's vision. Humanity, together with our very powerful computer friends, may yet sort it all out and construct consciousness. But it may take a few centuries longer than we expected.
Thursday, January 10. 2008
Some excellent points were raised by several people, both online and off, about my recent comments on technology's impact on our societal ability to trust and be trustworthy. So, some clarification:
And since the comments were dominated by the topic, tomorrow I'll talk about sex.
Tuesday, January 8. 2008
Kenny raised a good question about my assertion yesterday that the proliferation of lawyers was due to a general lack of trust in our culture:
What caused our culture to degrade? Well, even that's a loaded question, because it contains the implicit assumption that our culture is getting worse rather than getting better. Many people point to greater gender and racial equality in the last fifty years and think, on the whole, that we're getting better. (And some people will argue whether even that has happened. But hey: a woman and a black are frontrunners in the presidential election. Something has definitely changed.)
But looking at the loss of trust, as evidenced by the proliferation of lawsuits and divorces, let's just say something degraded. What happened? I think the answer may surprise you, coming from a geek: technology happened. Specifically, information technology happened: telephones, television, computers, and the Internet. That, and automobiles.
The beginning of the end of trust came with mobility.Â For the vast majority of human history,Â everyone lived in pretty much the same place, and with the same people, forÂ their entire lives. Everyone in the village or town knew everyone else, and were highly dependent on each other. In such a context, trustworthiness was exceedingly important; if you screwed over your neighbor, that neighbor and everyone else would soon know about it, and that would have both an immediate and a long-lasting implication for your quality of life. If village excluded you because they didn't trust you, you would not only have a miserable time, but your very survival might be threatened. Everyone had strong incentives to both trust and be trusted; you couldn't just write off the blacksmith who cheated you, and go down the road to some other blacksmith -- there might only be one blacksmith for miles around. SoÂ the community would bring strong pressure to bear on people to conform to basic standards of trustworthiness.
AsÂ humans' potential for mobility increased, soÂ did their dependence on others decrease. If you ruined your reputation in one town, you could always move on to the next one and start over. For the last several hundred years mobility was possible but extremely difficult -- if you wanted to move on to another place, you pretty much had to be a literal pioneer and go into the wilderness. Even as late the 1800's, you effective sphere of socialÂ and economic life was tightly circumscribed. The automobile changed that range extremely quickly; suddenly vast mobility became commonplace. Moving from town to town became the norm, and one's effective range for daily interactions was magnified by several orders of magnitude. In a world with automobiles every individual has vastly more potential economic and social partners, and so one's dependence on any particular relationship diminishes significantly. People become strangers to their own neighbors.
The limits of the geography, already pushed far back by the automobile, were utterly banished by electronic communication media: telephone, television, and the internet. It was within my lifetime that these technologies went from merely existing to being utterly ubiquitous. The most profound effects of the communication media were:
For a while I think the culture was able to coast on some of its momentum from previous generations. Very rapidly, though, the culture is losing its collective moral memory. People no longer have a clear conception of why we ever had restrictions on sexual behavior, or why cheating or breaking the law is bad.
The sum result: we don't treat our relationships with the same care as before, because in a modern world we don't need them as much. Or, at least, we don't think that we do. Our technologies have created vast wealth and opportunity, so much so that we are threatened with being smothered by it, lost in decadence.
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